Celtics-Clippers preview: Getting defensive

Celtics-Clippers preview: Getting defensive
January 8, 2014, 1:30 pm
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(AP Photo)

For the Celtics, the New Year was supposed to be a chance to hit the reset button on their season.

They have, but certainly not in the manner they were hoping to.

When the season began, Boston opened with four straight losses. Currently riding a five-game losing streak, the last four defeats have come in 2014. So rather than trending towards finding solutions, far too much of their time and energy has been spent trying to avoid what's shaping up to be perpetual struggles at both ends of the court.

But the biggest problem has been their defense, which has been among the NBA's worst since the start of the New Year.

Boston had been among the NBA's leaders in a number of defensive categories earlier this season. Now? Not so much.

Since Jan. 1, the Celtics rank 20th in three-point defense, 26th in field goal percentage defense and 26th in scoring defense.

Competing -- let alone winning -- games is a daunting task when struggling the way the Celtics have of late.

And the area of the defense that's been hit the hardest has been around the basket. Boston has been getting it done defensively by committee most of this season, but lately there hasn't been enough of a commitment by the Celtics collectively to establish a presence in the paint.

Before Jan. 1, opponents were shooting 59.3 percent on dunk, lay-up and tip-in shots. Since then, teams are converting 68.8 percent of those same shots -- far too efficient for any defense to withstand and still be effective. Those struggles around the basket will be challenged even more tonight against a Clippers team that's one of the best at playing above the rim.

Boston's struggles defending at the rim have opened a Pandora's box of Celtics defensive breakdowns on which teams have been able to capitalize.

Before Jan. 1, opponents were shooting just 36.6 percent on two-point jumpers. Since then, teams are lighting the Celtics up on 44.4 percent shooting, which explains the modest increase in opponents taking more twos now (45.9 percent) than they did pre-Jan. 1 (43.4 percent).

And then there's the team's three-point defense that has taken a major nosedive of late. Since Jan. 1, opponents have shot a blistering 48.6 percent on threes against Boston. That's a significant bump from the 32.3 percent they shot prior to the New Year.

"We're going to have to play really well to beat these teams on the road," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Tuesday's loss. "Everybody is going to have to play close to an 'A' game. And that's everybody; everybody is going to have to do that."

Here are some other keys in tonight's game:

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Boston has been embarrassed in its last two games defensively so look for them to be overly aggressive to start the game. That means there might be some full court pressure by Avery Bradley from the opening tip-off, maybe more trapping, the kind of things that just might collectively be what this team needs to re-establish itself as a strong defensive club.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Jeff Green vs. Jared Dudley

It sounds like a broken record, but this is yet another matchup that Jeff Green should dominate. He did so when these two teams met on Dec. 11, a game in which Green had a game-high 29 points on 10-for-23 shooting. Dudley has failed to score in double figures seven of the last eight games and his defensive rating of 101.9 is actually worse at home than it is on the road (99.4).

PLAYER TO WATCH: Jared Sullinger is in a tight spot right now. He wants to be a physical presence around the basket for the Celtics, but with Sullinger's flagrant foul total on the cusp of getting him an automatic one-game suspension, balancing the two won't be easy. And then there's his left hand injury that's clearly an issue for him every game.

STAT TO TRACK: Mistakes are part of the game, but few teams make you pay for them more than the Clippers. They come into tonight's game third in the NBA in points off of turnovers (18.8). Meanwhile, the Celtics come in ranked in the bottom 10 in points of turnovers, with 15.9 per game.