The Celtics Learned A Very Valuable Lesson That Poor Defense And Even Worse Shooting Is Not Going To Cut It

Sarah Stier. Getty Images.

Well that was gross. Not in the sense that this was a horrific loss to a terrible team as the Knicks are now 9 games over .500, have won 6 in a row, and have the second best record in the NBA since the All Star Break (Cs are 3rd). This game was gross because of how the Celts played. This wasn't a case where they didn't look prepared or that they played with no energy or effort either. That stuff was there.

The issue was that Celts had an execution problem on both ends of the floor. When you're on the last game of a little 3 game trip after the break, it's not uncommon to see a team throw up an egg in that game. The Celts have literally done it on several occasions earlier in this very season. Their first loss of the year vs CHI was on the road at the end of a 3 game trip. The second loss vs CHI was on the road at the end of a 3 game trip. The Warriors/Clippers losses were the last two of that West Coast trip. The January loss to the Heat….last game of a 3 game trip.

I know this may be hard for some to accept, but NBA teams sometimes lose basketball games when they play like shit. It's OK. It's not the end of the world nor does it mean this is how they will always play. For example, last night was the worst 3PT shooting game of the Celtics season, and only the 3rd time in 62 games that they shot under 25%. It was the very definition of "one of those nights" that are frustrating to live through but happen from time to time to literally every team in the league. The focus shouldn't be on having an off night, it should be on how you respond. 

At the same time, I think multiple things can be true. It's possible to be annoyed but not worried after last night while also pointing out some potential issues and bad habits that WILL matter once the season moves to the playoffs. To be honest, this wasn't all that different from the February 3rd loss to the Suns. In that game, the Celts lost 106-94, shot 10-38 from three (26%) and Tatum was 3-15 (3-10). Remember how everyone was freaking out after that?

The Celts then immediately went on a 7-2 run over their next 9 where before last night the only loss was the MIL game when the entire roster sat. Deep breaths.

There is a lot of basketball left in this season. The same way winning last night didn't lock up the 1 seed, losing it doesn't blow the 1 seed either. Yes, if the Celtics shoot 25% in all their games the rest of the way, they'll be in trouble. Hopefully by now, the sample size is large enough for you to understand it's highly unlikely that happens. The Celtics and Bucks essentially have the same strength of schedule remaining (Cs 14th / MIL 15th). They play each other head to head one more time. Everything that was in front of them heading into last night is still in front of them heading into today. 

But you have to execute. If you don't, nothing else really matters.

The Good

- In a game filled with no shows, that wasn't the case for everyone who touched the floor last night. For example, Malcolm Brogdon showed up and did exactly what he's on the floor to do

Of the players that played over 15 minutes, Brogdon and Rob were the only two Celtics players to finish about .500 from the floor. He didn't turn the ball over a single time in his 27 minutes, and he finished with 22/2/3 on 10-16 (2-5) shooting. On a night when someone needed to step up offensively and find a way to produce at an efficient level to help make up for the absence of Jaylen, I thought Brogdon filled that role perfectly. 

Maybe you're someone who wishes he played more than 27 minutes, but I think it's important to keep your eye on the prize. Outside of the IND OT game where he played 37 and the MIL OT game where he played 39, Brogdon has been under 30 minutes in 7 of the last 8 regulation games (5-2). If we want the best version of Brogdon when it matters most, having this approach is smart. Let him go nuts in his minutes and be aggressive offensively, but keep the overall total down. 

Right now his three ball is still dropping at a ridiculous rate, and he's also been just as lethal once he gets into the midrange/painted area. This is a version of Brogdon that elevates this team to a higher level, the thing is everyone else also needs to show up.

- Coming off one of his worst showings against the Sixers where you could tell he was way too caught up in his emotions and was playing way too fast and loose, I thought last night was a nice bounce back performance from Marcus, at least offensively

These types of games are tough because with Jaylen out and guys like DWhite and Tatum cold from the floor, Smart has no choice but to increase his scoring output. He responded with 7-15 which was good, but just 2-7 from three which wasn't so hot. Mainly because of the type of 3PA he had to take to try and find scoring. Less catch & shoot, more off the dribble/stepback. That's not the way for him.

After being pretty careless with the ball at times Smart finished with just 1 TO in his 34 minutes, and overall on the offensive side of the ball I thought Smart gave enough. His (and the team's) issue was more defensively which was a disaster. He had that sick block at the rim, but other than that it wasn't great on that end.

- Honestly, that's really it. Al had some nice moments and I'll never be mad at him given what he's doing at 36, but only grabbing 2 rebounds in 27 minutes wasn't great. 

I think we can move on.

The Bad

- One of the strengths of this team is supposed to be the perimeter defense, even in games Jaylen is not playing in. Between Smart, White, Brogdon, Tatum, Grant etc, there are enough plus defenders available to where you should be able to provide some resistance to dribble drives.

What we're learning is that when the Celts don't stop the point of attack, their defense is much easier to breakdown. Go back to the 3 game skid of ORL/MIA/NYK. In each of those games it was the same thing. Whether it was Butler/Herro/Vincent/Fultz/Paolo/Anthony/Brunson/Quickley/Barrett, they all were able to easily blow by their initial defender and get into the paint, which obviously forces the Celts to rotate/collapse, leading to open looks/plays at the rim. 

Take last night for example. At no point did any perimeter defender have any success at limiting any Knicks player from getting to where they want to go, again. How many times did we see plays like this on the perimeter?

That type of shit isn't going to cut it. You can probably count on one hand the number of times any Celtics perimeter defender successfully stopped a dribble drive attempt. I don't know if this is something where they think Rob will just come and clean everything up, but I need better individual man to man defense against teams that have elite dribble drive players. We're about to see this again with CLE, and if the same type of execution shows up in that game, the results will be the same.

We know this because this is how the Celts offense thrives. Dribble drives and drive and kicks. If you can't protect the paint, it's essentially like cutting off the head of the snake. On a night where you couldn't shoot to save your life, it was a bad time to also not defend anywhere close to an acceptable level on the perimeter. This was easily the biggest factor in the game for me, even more than the shooting.

- Why? Because every time the Celts tried to make a run, they couldn't get that all important stop. Why? Because they couldn't stop dribble penetration. This is where the Knicks deserve credit. When it came time to respond and prevent the Celts from gaining that momentum to swing the game, they executed. Whether it was a 3, a layup, or getting to the line, they answered the call every single time all night. That's how something like this happens

While "technically" this wasn't a wire to wire loss, it basically was. You don't see too many games this Celts team gets beat wire to wire like this where they never really got close to tying the game. Give the Knicks credit, they played a full 48.

- I would best describe this performance as a shit sandwich. Everywhere you look, the Celts were outplayed. Rebounding? They lost it 44-35. Second chance points? Lost it 17-11. Fastbreak points? They lost 10-8. FTA? 34-14. Fouls? 22-11.

They did win the point in the paint battle 52-42 so that was cool, but it didn't really matter given everything else.

- About the fouls/FTs, I think it's a combination of a few things. For starters, the defense hasn't been good enough. At the same time, it's tough to stomach that the team in the NBA that averages the fewest fouls per game is suddenly throwing up 22 fouls in back to back games. This is not to say the Celts are not fouling. But it doesn't feel like things are consistent when it comes to the contact that's being allowed. We're seeing a lot more touch fouls these last two games on one end, while not seeing that same call on the other. I think that's the frustrating part. Plays like this, where Tatum clearly gets pushed in the back on a dunk being a no call/tech on Tatum is where people get upset

Just call a consistent game, that's all I really ask for. Back to back games of a 20 FTA difference is crazy, especially when all season the Celts give up some of the fewest FTA on average. 

In terms of style, it's not like the Knicks didn't take a ton of 3PA. They had 31 to the Celts 42. Just like against the Sixers, they took 27 to the Celts 35. Yet in both of those games each team took 30+ FTA to the Cels being in the low teens. That just doesn't pass the eye test.

- He's been so awesome for well over a month that for me he gets a pass, but last night was a tough time for a 4-11 (0-5) shooting performance from Derrick. Especially since so many of his 3PA were simple wide open catch and shoot looks. Those were tough to miss.

- I've said it before, and it applies to this game as well. Depth is only good if it actually shows up. Brogdon did, the rest of the bench? Where was it? A total of 7 points from non-Brogdon second unit players and a brutal 2-11 shooting. The first move I didn't love was Joe going with Blake over Muscala in that first stint which led to Blake being a -11 in his 5 minutes (0-2 shooting). In a game like this where you needed to try and snap your shooting issues, I'm not sure going Blake over Moose makes sense. Especially since Moose actually made one of his 3s one he hit the floor.

With Grant, he can't keep having these zero impact or negative impact games. Making 0 FGM, committing 4 fouls and having 2 TOs is simply not going to cut it. Julius Randle ate this man up for lunch with relative ease, and that's an issue. If Grant doesn't want to shoot, fine. But then you have to defend at a high level. When neither of those things happen and he does more harm than good, that's a problem.

- Something this game told us was that while you can't win a game in the first quarter, you can certainly lose it. Just 15 points on 33/8% shooting with 4 TOs is about as bad as this team can possibly play. A 6-1 foul difference and a 10-2 FTA difference to start while also missing all your shots is pretty pathetic. The Celts played the Knicks pretty even the rest of the way, but the damage was done early.

The Celts HAVE to find a way to get off to better starts. Tatum plays a huge part in that, but it was an everyone issue last night. The bigger issue is they had basically the same execution in the 4th quarter as well. In that frame, they finished with just 19 points on 38/20% shooting while committing 6 fouls and allowing 11 FTA. 

So basically, a shitty start and a shitty close. That's going to be an L pretty much every time.

The Ugly

- I don't really know where else you could possibly put the Tatum performance. While he was fine in terms of his all around performance (7 rebounds, 9 assists), it's the offense that is a glaring issue right now. The 14 points were brutal, as were the 4 TOs, but the 6-18 (1-9) shooting was the dagger. That was too much to overcome given that nobody else could make a shot either.

When it comes to Tatum's February, things are weird. Just look at the numbers

This now marks 5 of his 11 games this month where he's come in at under 36%, and 4 of those games are now 33% and under. This sort of puts it in perspective

Having these games where his FGM and TOs are basically the same number is a bit of an issue. Since the break, Tatum is shooting just 36/24% from the floor. He has 22 FGM and 13 TOs over that span. If you look at his last two games, it's 13 FGM and 9 TOs. That's terrible.

Not only that, he's taken just 3 FTA in his last 2 games. In fact, he's taken under 3 FTA in 3 of his last 4. The 3PA numbers are the same as ever. Over these last 3 games, he's at 9 drives per game which is right around his season average (11), so it's not as if he's only shooting 3PA. I dunno if it's a whistle issue or what, but getting zero from his shooting whle also getting zero from the line is a bit of an issue for this offense.

In terms of his ejection, whatever. It wouldn't shock me if one of those techs gets rescinded, but the bigger issue is how Tatum played, not that he got tossed.

- Finally, the shooting. It's a little funny that the best 3PT shooting performance and the worst 3PT shooting performance of the season have both come against the Knicks. A make or miss league as they say, and man the Celtics didn't do all that much making. If you were curious about the breakdown, it's as gross as you think

Two moments this really made an impact were the wide open Muscala three from the corner in the fourth that he missed followed by the wide open Sam Hauser corner three that he missed as well. The Knicks went down and scored 5 points off those two plays for an 11 point swing. Could have been 7 or under, and instead, it was 14. This wasn't bad offense, it was poor execution. That shit happens.

In the end, an offense generating that many open/wide open looks is good. Guys just have to make shots. Nobody cares about the approach when it goes in, the Celts also had 52 points in the paint, this was just a matter of their outside shots not dropping. Oh well, I can live with that. The process was right, the execution wasn't. That's basketball. 

A look at the schedule tells you things aren't about to get easier. A couple games against the Cavs, another date with a red hot Knicks team, the Celts certainly have their work cut out for them. I also know that if they play to their potential and don't have the worst shooting night of their season, they'll be fine. Nothing we saw in this game isn't correctable, the players just have to do it. We are not at the point of the calendar where you can have a slide, so I'm interested in seeing how they respond now that they finally return home. 

The easiest way to forget about this performance is to win the next one. Love and Trust.