WALTHAM, Mass. -- After the Washington Wizards were finished tossing the Boston Celtics around Saturday night in the nation’s capital, a frustrated Jared Sullinger sounded off on the state of Boston’s physicality.
“Teams are just coming out and smashing us in the mouth,” Sullinger said. “We’ve just got to be prepared for it. People feel like we’re sweet or soft. We’ve just got to play tough. It’s very disrespectful. But only us guys in the locker room can change that.”
Soft is a four-letter word in the NBA. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers rarely broke it out and only when he really wanted to needle his team. The mere insinuation that the Celtics were soft so infuriated Kevin Garnett back at the start of Sullinger’s rookie campaign that a riled-up Garnett barked in response, “I don’t know any man that likes to be called soft, maybe some women. But where I’m from, most men don’t like that.”
Before practice on Tuesday, Sullinger was asked how this year’s squad responded in the immediate aftermath of his suggestion that opponents might consider the Celtics soft.
“I know [Monday] we had the WWE around here,” said Sullinger, suggesting a wrestling-like atmosphere at practice. “Everybody was playing physical. I saw a lot of body slamming, a lot of clotheslining. Guys were playing physical, that’s what we like.”
You’ll have to take Sullinger at his word -- and keep in mind that he was merely a ringside manager (we envision him as “Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, with sunglasses and a megaphone) for Monday’s session due to an ankle injury. The Celtics rarely have shown any sort of steel-cage match physicality on the court this season.
Reporters did catch a brief glimpse of conditioning exercises to start Monday’s session and one agility drill culminated with players encountering strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo at the top of the key with an oversized blocking pad. Players were supposed to shoulder charge the pad, then roll to the hoop. The Celtics were attacking Doo as if he were a football blocking sled, some seemingly with the intentions of trying to knock him over.
It wouldn’t be a bad thing if some of that aggression trickled onto the court during game action.
It’s fair to say that, in their current state, the Celtics are more of a finesse team than a bunch of bruisers. Tyler Zeller has added some toughness around the basket since elevating to the starting lineup early in the season, but Boston’s bigs tend to prefer the perimeter to the post. The Celtics don’t have the sort of player who desires to set up shop near the blocks and play back to the basket every trip down. Likewise, there’s no Celtics player who craves contact going to the basket, as reflected in Boston’s anemic free throw attempt rate.
The Celtics do pack a little more physicality on the defensive end, most notably with Marcus Smart. The 20-year-old rookie harasses opposing guards and isn’t afraid to deliver a hard box out around the basket. (For instance: Smart watched Marcin Gortat tumble over him chasing a rebound against the Wizards.)
But the Celtics routinely were outmuscled against Washington on Saturday night. Old friend Kris Humphries and fellow big Nene often overpowered the likes of Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk while chasing rebounds or battling for position. Boston’s lack of a rim protector is well documented, but the Wizards also were eager to go hard at the basket without fear of being deterred.
It’s hard to remember the last time a Celtics player stepped up to deliver a hard foul to dissuade a driver. Coach Brad Stevens likely craves a little more (controlled) physicality on both ends of the court. Some of his most memorable teams at Butler University were known for being bullies on the defensive end, often harassing opponents into late-clock, low-percentage situations.
It seems important to note that -- physical or not -- Boston’s defense has been excellent in the month of December. Entering Tuesday’s action, the Celtics ranked sixth in the league this month with a defensive rating of 99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. The Celtics have kept themselves competitive with their defense, but there are simply times when the team needs to be more physical at both ends of the floor.
That seems especially prudent as Boston braces for a visit from DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday afternoon. Just the other night, Cousins absolutely abused the Brooklyn Nets’ frontcourt while bullying his way to the basket for a loud dunk. Cousins simply imposed his will and his eyes will shoot wide seeing Boston’s bigs. The Celtics need to operate with a sort of defiance that they won’t be pushed around.
Data logged by Synergy Sports suggests the Celtics rank 28th in post defense this season. Opponents are shooting 47.5 percent in those situations and end up at the free throw line 15.2 percent of possessions, which ranks them 25th in the league.
The Celtics and their overcrowded roster have lost four straight and are staggering a bit in the aftermath of the trade that sent Rajon Rondo to Dallas. Boston has rotation problems and a playing time crunch, but one thing players can control is their physicality when they are on the court.
Boston has a choice at the moment: It can sit here with an imperfect roster, feel bad for itself, and resign to being pushed around. Or it can get angry and give a little bit of that physicality back. No team should ever be content to be considered soft.