For the first time since December 13th, we finally saw the Celtics roll out their normal intended starting five. Their top 9 guys were all active. And yet, it feels like in order for that to happen this team had to make a deal with the devil. Sure, he would give them their guys back, but at a price. What might that price be you ask? Only to find the most painful way possible to lose a basketball game. You cannot convince me otherwise. If there is one thing you can say this underachieving Celtics team is consistent at, it's finding new ways to twist the knife. The year started with a couple of fun 2OT losses just to get the blood pumping. Then came massive fourth quarter collapses to rub some dirt on it. If that wasn't enough, there were the multiple games where we've seen this team shoot under 10% from three on high volume. If that wasn't enough, how about multiple late game collapses with the team up double digits with under half a quarter to play or up by 7 with 3 minutes left. I thought we had seen it all to be honest. How much can one team and fanbase endure?
I have to admit, I did not see "a team passes you the ball on inbounds play in the prayer of all prayers with 5 seconds left only for your 2nd best player and someone who had been awesome all night to go on to miss an uncontested layup at the buzzer to lose by 2 points". That's a special kind of fucked up that honestly only could happen to this team. Who else goes through this on a nightly basis? What other ways to cause pain are there? Are the Basketball Gods just waiting for someone to scream uncle or something? Is that it? Fine, I'll fucking do it
UNCLE!! UNCLE!!! UNCLE!!!
Just enough already. Pick on someone else. There are 29 other teams in the league for crying out loud. It's getting a little ridiculous.
On a serious note, the was just the latest example of this team finding a way to come up short. There's no injury excuse, or protocol excuse, or any of that. They simply did not play well enough to win. Execution on both ends was not nearly good enough, and it came from everyone on the roster who touched the floor, including their two best players. Maybe most notably their best player. I know the easy thing to do after a game like this is to declare that everything has to be broken up and blah blah blah, but it's also as simple as their best players not playing like ass. Guess what? You could make any trade you want, and if your #1 option is going to shoot 6-20, nothing else really matters.
The January schedule is nice in theory, but it means shit if you don't take care of your own business. Especially at home. Until this team figures their shit out, the only thing you can truly count on is some new way they're going to ruin your life. I thought we had seen it all, but maybe this is just the begininng.
With that said, let's get into it.
- Despite the final play, it's hard to be too upset with how Jaylen played in this game. He was their best player without question, and without his production this game probably isn't even close to begin with
This doesn't excuse his 4th quarter (which we'll get to), but 30/6 on 12-25 (4-8) with a couple of steals and for the most part solid defense is about all you can ask for. I thought the team was much better at playing through Jaylen for about 95% of this game, and on a positive note we did see him cut his TOs in half. That helps when you have guys like Smart/Dennis/Tatum back in the lineup. It allows Jaylen to move back into the role the thrives in, which is a scorer. His playmaking development is something you hope to see over time, but there's no denying he's at his best when the team plays through him as a scorer. He's showing no signs of any issue with his hamstring which is great, and most importantly this has been a consistent thing since his return. See for yourself
That's an 11 game sample since coming back with 28.3/7.1/3.1 averages on 45/36% splits with 3.4 3PM a night. If you're going to complain about that, I feel like you're just looking for something to complain about. That's not to say he's been perfect during this stretch, let's not twist my words. But he's playing at an All Star level, which is what makes my heart hurt so bad for him last night with how that game ended. He gave this team enough to win, which is what makes this all so annoying.
- I also thought this was one of Marcus Smart's better showings. He's another guy that has been playing some of his best basketball since he returned to the lineup. His passing to start this game was incredible. I would argue he continues to play exactly how everyone screams and yells for him to play, yet I don't hear anywhere close to the recognition as I do the blame for when things go wrong. Why is that? Last night he finished with 14/6 with 3 steals on 50/50% shooting. He took only 12 shots. When the game got tight in the fourth quarter, it was Marcus who came up with big defensive play after big defensive play just begging one of his teammates to come through on the other end. Sadly, they never did and here we are.
Defensively, he more than did his job. His three most guarded players were Derrick White (14 possessions), Bryn Forbes (10 possessions), and Jakob Poeltl (9 possessions). They scored a combined 3 points on 0-8 shooting. Shit, he gave up just 2 points on 7 possessions against Dejounte Murray.
Watching Marcus in this game, you saw a player who fully accepted his role with everyone back. I never really got the take that Smart doesn't accept his role. He plays to whatever that role might be on any given night. When guys are out, especially if it's one of Tatum/Brown, chances are Marcus is going to have to shoot more. When they're back? He defers. He looks to create for others first and gets back to focusing on playmaking and defense. Last night was just the latest example of that and why I think he fits moving forward.
- Honestly? This is really it. There were some good moments from Dennis in the fourth, but I have bigger issues with that quarter which we'll get to. I thought Rob had his moments, but I think we can all agree it's time to continue on.
- Let's start with the harsh reality this team finds themselves in. Last night's loss now brings them to 2-10 in games decided by 3 points or less. Their clutch time record has now dropped to 7-15, which is the 2nd most losses in the entire NBA. If that wasn't painful enough for you to read, just look at their last 6 losses
Imagine if this team was just average in close games? 6-6. Nothing special. Just not a complete and utter disaster. The entire feeling of their season is different. So you look at all this and you see a few things. What stands out obviously is their inability to close. That's not new, and it starts with their best players. Here's a quick look at the updated clutch numbers
Jayson Tatum: 19 games (6-13): 34/11% splits
Jaylen Brown: 15 games (4-11): 45.5/40%
Marcus Smart: 19 games (7-12): 37.5/66%
Al Horford: 14 games (5-9): 28/33%
So really, outside of Jaylen and strangely Marcus' outside shooting, that's not exactly what you want to see. Especially from Tatum and Al. Tatum is obviously the more important one here since he's going to be on the floor in every closing situation, whereas Al isn't. When it comes to the fourth quarter in general, here's how their top 2 guys look
Jayson Tatum: 41/37%
Jaylen Brown: 39/16%
Then think back to what we saw last night. In the fourth quarter, Jaylen and Marcus really struggled from the floor, going a combined 2-9. In the big closing moments of a tight game, Tatum wasn't anywhere to be found offensively. Until their best players find a way to come through in these moments, you're going to remain one of the worst teams in the league in close games.
But I see something else when I look at their clutch game record. Having 22 of their 39 games qualify for this is a more glaring issue in terms of the roster construction. Their lack of shooting and inconsistent defense is what prevents them from ever getting separation in the first palce. When you also throw in a 6-20 game from Tatum, no shit you're going to find yourself in a dog fight. So while their inability to win these games late is the first thing you notice, the sheer fact that they are playing in so many close games in the first place should also be a cause for concern.
- Brutal night for Al. No other way to really say it. His struggles on offense are becoming too much to just shrug off. Not only is he now down to 43/28% on the season, since Thanksgiving he's at 40/25%. I understand and acknowledge the value he provides as a defender and a passer, but that doesn't mean his shooting hasn't been absolutely brutal. He's never shot the ball worse at any point in his career.
The toughest part is the fact that these struggles are coming on open and wide open looks. Al is shooting just 21.9% from three on "open" looks this season. Change that to "wide open" and it's 29.8%. That's horrific. It's why you hear fans wanting to swap him for Grant with the starters and that isn't without merit when you consider the shooting difference.
- Unfortunately, Grant also wasn't all that great last night. It had a very 2020 Grant feel if you ask me. Boneheaded turnovers, nothing really coming offensively, and so-so defense at best. It's probably why he only played 21 minutes despite how poor Al was also playing.
- You would think that after the performance he had in SA, the Celts would have been better prepared for Dejounte Murray. Sadly, they were not. Once again this man lived in the paint. Everyone and their mother knows that Murray is going to do what he can to get to around the FT line so he can get into his floater/jumper. The Celts decided time and time and time again to switch this, putting Rob on Murray. The result? Murray cooked him. 10 points on 5-7 shooting against Rob, each bucket bigger than the last
He's taken a leap, no doubt about it, but I thought the Celts defensive approach for him was very poor for the second game in a row both from a scheme perspective and in terms of execution. I wish someone would have asked Ime about this postgame. It felt like they made no adjustments to how Murray was giving them the business.
- I don't know much, but I know shooting 39/27% for an entire half probably isn't going to get the job done. Especially when on the other end you're allowing 50% shooting. The biggest issue with that second half offense? There was no ball movement. Whatever worked in the first half was nowhere to be found. They finished with just 7 assists as a team, and 4 of them came from Al. The trio of Tatum/Smart/Jaylen had 0 second half assists. Rob did not score because they didn't run shit for him in the P&R. Shit, Al didn't score either! Combined they took 2 FGA in an entire half. No wonder they struggled to score, they went back to playing like assholes and not doing the exact stuff that clearly worked to start the game. I think that's where a lot of the fans frustration comes from. We see them do it, we see it works, and then poof. Back to playing losing basketball in the biggest moments and games end in losses. Imagine that.
- What is it going to take for this team to corral a 50/50 ball? Legitimately curious. How is it possible that nobody grabbed this ball. How? Someone please explain this to me.
So just bad.
- I saw a lot of upset tweets about Ime closing with Dennis, and I'm not sure I agree. The fourth quarter offense was garbage, but he was one of the few players actually giving this team buckets. He shoots 53% in clutch time situations this year, and the closing lineup we saw is +10.3 on the season and +14 in fourth quarters.
Playing Schroder in those moments though comes at a price. Because of how he scores, you're not going to get the same ball movement and flow. Things will feel slower because he walks the ball up. That's what I personally don't like about it, but I get why Ime closed with that group. You can't really play him off ball and have Smart initiate offense because of his streaky three point shooting. He's best with the ball in his hands and getting down hill. To do that, you run P&R and isolation. It's sort fo a double edged sword. The Celts need his rim pressure late in games, but his style also translates to less ball movement. It's a pick your poison situation.
- Listen, we all know this team will only go as far as Tatum/Brown lead them. That's what makes Tatum's regression as a shooter so painful. He's now at 41/32% on the season which is well below his career averages both from the floor and the field. Last night was another example of where if he just hit his shitty season averages, the Celtics win. A 6-20 (1-6) is not going to cut it. I know he's coming back from being out, but that doesn't excuse how he played in my opinion. Tons of misses by the rim, all 6 of his 3PA were either open or wide open, this is probably the 5th or 6th game like this we've had. One where all Tatum needs to do is not be horrific shooting the ball and this team wins. Just write it out
1. 2OT vs NYK the Celts lost by 4, Tatum shot 23/13%
2. 2OT vs WSH the Celts lost by 3, Tatum shot 31/0%
3. Collapse vs CLE the Celts lost by 2, Tatum shot 36/12%
4. First game against SA, Celts collapsed and lost by 8, Tatum shot 39/28%
5. Collapse vs PHI the Celts lost by 5, Tatum shot 35/0%
6. Collapse vs MIL, the Celts lost by 4, Tatum shot 35/40%
and then last night. That's 7 games where if Tatum just shoots his normal averages on this down year, so 41/32%, the majority of those are probably wins. That's why I push back against this idea that there is this giant fundamental issue with the roster. Not really, they just need their best player to stop playing like ass when it comes to decision making and shooting the basketball. For any of this to work, the Celts need Tatum to produce. When he doesn't, it often doesn't really matter what else happens. He's too important, too high of a usage player to be consistently throwing up 30/16%'s.
- OK fine, let's relive the final play
Not much else needs to be said here. Just one of the most brutal ways to lose a game you're ever going to see. Classic Celtics basketball.
So now here they sit, 18-20 with a game tonight in New York against the Knicks. Lose it, and you're currently in the lottery. You could tell me the Celts will come out angry and blow this team out and you could tell me they're going to lose on a full court heave at the buzzer and I would believe it. One thing I know for certain though is at some point, there will be pain. That seems unavoidable,