PORTLAND, Ore. — The trademark of the Boston Celtics in recent years has been defense, but that asset has deserted them on their road trip.
Boston (7-5) has lost three of its four games on the trek heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center, and poor defense has been a common denominator.
The Celtics gave up 48 points to Jamal Murray in a 115-107 loss to Denver, 38 points to Devin Booker in a 116-109 overtime victory over Phoenix and 27 points to Joe Ingles in a 123-115 defeat by Utah on Friday night. A week ago, Boston led the NBA with a sub-100 defensive rating. Now it is fourth at 102.6.
“It’s a real issue,” Boston coach Brad Stevens told reporters after the game at Salt Lake City. “With (Damian) Lillard and (C.J.) McCollum next, they’re probably licking their chops on us right now.
“We have to get a lot better. As good as we were defensively in the first nine games, we haven’t been as good the last three.”
At Utah, the Celtics were without point guard Kyrie Irving, on personal leave while attending a memorial service for his grandfather. Irving should be back for Sunday’s date at Portland, though it’s his offense Boston misses most.
But an improved defensive effort is what the Celtics really need.
“You have to want to guard, that’s what it comes down to,” Boston guard Marcus Smart said. “We have a lot of guys who can score, but you have to play defense as well. It’s one thing to outscore your opponent, but another to stop them from scoring as well.
“Right now we’re not outscoring our opponents, so you have to stop them. Until we decide we’ve had enough and own up, and hold our ground with one-on-one and team defense, we’re going to continue getting hit in the mouth.”
Portland (9-3) is 4-1 as they eye the final contest of a six-game homestand. Lillard said it has helped that the players haven’t looked ahead.
“We haven’t focused on, ‘Let’s do this for the homestand’,” he said. “It’s been one game at a time. In the past, it’s been like, ‘We have this team next, then we have that team.’ This entire time has been asking each other, ‘Who’s the next (opponent)?’ It’s paying off for us.”
The next opponent is Boston, one of the teams considered a favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
“They’re a really good team,” Lillard said. “Last year, dealing with injuries and guys having to step up, they showed how deep and talented they are. They have a lot of guys who can come in and impact the game. Having (Gordon) Hayward and Kyrie back, they’re one of those teams that can have a huge night on you.
“Our job is to continue to focus on the things we’ve been doing, be mentally prepared, be together and do the things on the offensive end that are going to give us the best chance of winning. If we continue to have that type of mentality, we should be fine.”
“They’re another good team that presents challenges to us,” McCollum said. “But we have the advantage of being at home. We’ll try to get one more win before we go out on the road.”