Celtics recaptured their identity with Marcus Smart
Marcus Smart. Getty Images

From afar, there was a powerful tone coming out of the Boston Celtics’ locker room on Monday night after their win in New Orleans.

The postgame comments had a different feel. It had kind of a “this is what our team is supposed to look like” reaction to a 124-107 win over the Pelicans.

Celtics players applauded their own defense. And Kyrie Irving went one step further, using Monday night’s defensive efforts to define the team’s identity.

“I think that, what made us very successful tonight, as well as other nights when we play at a very high level, is on the defensive end,” Irving told the media after the game.

“When we’re playing at that type of level [defensively], we’re tough to beat,” added Irving. “Because, offensively, it’ll take care of itself.

“It felt good tonight to win like that. Because that’s who we are.”

That’s who they are. 

For what it’s worth, I agree. But those are some strong words, considering one of the team’s young stars was sidelined with a back injury.

Jaylen Brown missed Monday’s game after injuring his tailbone in Saturday night’s loss in Dallas. He did not practice on Wednesday, putting his status for Friday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in question.

In Brown’s absence, Marcus Smart made his first start of the season, and played a season-high 40 minutes. It’s no coincidence that the Celtics recaptured their identity in the process.

Smart has always provided a spark. That’s why they re-signed him. Defense is his bread and butter. But it’s his passion and desire that’s most infectious.

You could claim that the C’s recaptured their “defensive” identity in New Orleans on Monday night, but for the most part, the Celtics have statistically been one of the top defensive teams in the NBA this year. So has “defense” really been the biggest problem for an 11-10 team that’s greatly underachieved?

The Celtics found something else in New Orleans with Smart in the starting lineup. They found their toughness. They found their grit. They found their personality.

All of those things had been missing, at least, according to coach Brad Stevens on Thanksgiving Eve, in what was an eye-opening postgame press conference following a loss at home to the New York Knicks.

“This is a lot of things,” he said last week after losing three straight games. “We have a myriad of issues that we have to fix.

"It’s not guaranteed that you’re going to be able to turn it around,” Stevens added. “The reality is, you have to grind it out, you have to work, and you have to be able to weather all this other stuff that’s going along with it.

“We’re not playing with the same personality we played with last year. That’s the easiest way to describe it. And then the 50,000 issues that are below that, we have to tackle one at a time.”

Stevens gave those issues an “off-the-court” feel. Because it’s certainly not a talent issue. And don’t even try to sell me on those “50,000” other things being X’s and O’s related. 

Whatever all that “other stuff” is, it’s been leaking onto the court during games this season. The fact that the Celtics seemed to recapture their identity while Brown was inactive, is sort of a bad look for Brown, as unfair as that may sound. But in all fairness, it’s an even better look for Smart.

Maybe we’ll eventually see a trade to shake things up. Maybe we’ll see Smart remain in the starting lineup when Brown returns to full health. Either way, there’s no denying that the Celtics were different on Monday night in their win over the Pelicans. And they let us know about it afterwards.

That’s who they are.

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