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After Another Gut-Wrenching Loss To The Knicks, The Celtics Currently Find Themselves At A Very Important Crossroad

Brian Babineau. Getty Images.

The Celtics find themselves at a bit of a crossroads at the moment. It's important to remember that this is not the first time this team has faced some adversity this season, and it will for sure not be the last. To start the season with back to back losses, including a brutal OT home loss to CLE, the Celts responded by winning 9 straight. When they lost 5 of 6 in mid December, they responded by winning 4 in a row. After back to back losses a few weeks later, they ripped off 9 in a row. Then came the three straight losses at the end of January, followed by winning 9 of their next 11.

Which brings us to today. Now losers of two very frustrating home losses in a row and 3 of their last 4 (and CLE tonight), the Celts are once again at a fork in the road moment. To put it simply, the Celtics are flat out not playing good basketball by pretty much any measure since things started up again after the break. Whether you want to use the eye test or actually care what the data says, it doesn't really matter because it all tells the same story. The Celts have been nowhere near good enough. See for yourself.

Since their first game back on 2/23, here's where the Celts rank (3-3)

- Ortg: 115.0(16th)

- Drtg: 117.3 (22nd)

- Net rating: -2.3 (18th)

- AST%: 59.8% (17th)

- Opponent's points: 118.8 (22nd)

On what planet is that anywhere close to acceptable? Even if you consider the sample size of 6 games small, that doesn't change the fact that since the break, we are not seeing the Celtics play to their potential, especially on the defensive end. I know Brogdon has missed a few games and I know Rob just got hurt, but I don't really see that as an excuse for the numbers you see above. Last time I checked, Tatum, Brown, Smart, Derrick, Al etc are all playing right? 

The issue here is we know what this team looks like when they are playing to their potential. When they are locked in defensively. We have a "control" to compare their level of play to, because we've seen what works.

What we are watching over these last 6 games isn't really anywhere close to that, and the frustrating part is mostly the fact that we KNOW how much better they can play on both ends because we've seen it. 

Of course, there is plenty of time to right the ship, there are 17 games left. And yet the more we see the Celts play like this, the quicker they are undoing all their good work from earlier in the season. Part of why these losses feel more weighted is because with each blown game the margin for error gets smaller and smaller. If there was a hope that the Celts could maybe use part of March to rest, well I'm pretty sure we can now throw that out the window. 

So let's see what this team is made of. Pretty much every time this season they've found themselves in one of these ruts, they immediately played their way out of it. Now they have to do it during one of the more important stretches of the season.

But as always, before we move on, we first must talk about last night.

The Good

- On most nights, if you get 69 points from your two best players, that should be enough to carry you to a win given all the other talent on the roster. This was not a performance where you felt like the Celts two best guys didn't show up, so let's start with Jaylen.

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For my money, Jaylen was the best Celtic on the floor last night. The production was solid, he was efficient at 12-25 (2-5), he came up huge in big moments including from the FT line which was nice to see considering what happened with Jaylen at the FT against the Knicks in an earlier loss, and I thought his defense (especially off ball) was maybe the best of any game Jaylen has played this season.

He finished a team best +8 in his 47 minutes, and honestly they probably should have played through Jaylen more down the stretch of this game. He was their best player in the 4th (8 points on 50%), yet only got 3 FGA in both OTs (0-3). That feels a little backwards to me. Since coming back from the break, it's pretty clear Jaylen is having zero issues with his mask, and his 27.2/6.2/3.0 on 48/44% splits in those 5 games suggests that maybe the Celts need to be playing through Jaylen a little more, especially late in games. Over this span, he's shooting 58/40% in 4th quarters.

It'll be interesting to see how Jaylen's 3P shooting holds up over a larger sample, but he's played about as well as he has all year at the moment so I don't really have too many problems with him right now.

- The same is true with Jayson Tatum. His night was kind of weird in a sense that the Celts were in this game largely because of what Tatum was able to produce on the floor

In no way was his 40/11/6 an empty statline or anything like that. In terms of his efficiency, 12-30 (6-27) or said another way 40/35% isn't going to blow your dick off but also isn't exactly "terrible", given the volume and the types of shots Tatum was taking. Add in that Tatum only turned the ball over just twice, I would say for the most part that Tatum was more than good enough in this game for about 95% of it.

The thing is, from the final 6:50 of the 4th quarter until the end of the game, Tatum finished just 3-10 with a shot chart that looked like this

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He finished just 1-4 from the floor in the final 6 minutes of the 4th, and then 2-6 in the OTs. Those were killer and that is why I called his game last night weird. He was awesome for the majority of it and why the Celts even had an opportunity to win it, but he also had an extremely frustrating offensive approach in the key moments, and that's where he needs to be better. 

- Few things in life bother me more than wasting good Al Horford games. I'm just going to say it, if Al is giving you a performance like this

where his 36 year old ass is giving you 20/14/6 on 7-15 (6-10) with 0 TOs and 2 blocks, you need to close the deal. Not only that, but he hit the big corner three that should have won this team the game. I'm not going to get on him for the game winning attempt in 2OT that was a little short, it was a great look. By that point, Al had played 45 minutes so it's whatever.

There are some negative aspects to Al's game that the team is going to figure out (more on this in a minute), but overall Al gave this team more than anyone could realistically ask for. To be wasting these types of Al performances is just very frustrating. He showed up ready to go and letting Al down is about as disheartening as it gets.

- While the ending didn't turn out how anyone hoped, it was nice to see this team actually play with some balls and fight back in the 4th quarter once things got a little out of hand and the Celts fell behind by 11 with about 8 minutes to go. Where that level of intensity defensively was all game is anyone's guess, but once the Knicks went on a run it's not as if this team had a "woe is me" mentality and folded. They punched back. 

Coming off how they most certainly did NOT punch back against BKN, that was nice to see, but also what makes this loss annoying. 

- That's pretty much it, let's move on.

The Bad

- One thing is abundantly clear when it comes to playing the Knicks. They are not afraid of you. In fact, they probably think you're a bunch of little bitches, and I see no reason why they wouldn't.

I just look at it like this. Since the start of last season, the Celts are now 2-5 vs NYK, with three of those losses coming in OT (2 2OT). Every one of these games pretty much has the same storyline, the Knicks are physical, they get in your grill, and they are not afraid. If the Celts had this type of success over any other team, what would we say?

We would say they mentally "own" that team right? Well, if we're being consistent, it's fair to say that the Knicks mentally and physically own this team. They are the only team in the NBA to beat the Celtics 3 times this season, and nothing we've seen over the last 2 seasons suggests otherwise. 

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There's just something about when these two teams play where we end up seeing some anomaly type shit, both good and bad. In their first meeting, the Celts made 27 3PM, their best shooting night of the year. In the second game, Jaylen bricked those 2 FTs right at the end of the game. In the 3rd meeting, the Celts had their worst shooting game of the entire season.

In the 4th? Yesterday was the first time all year the Celtics lost a game in which they made at least 20 3PM. They were 12-0 prior to last night. That sure is fun!

- If you look at how this team has looked in their last 6 games, it's hard to look past the fact that their guard play simply has been nowhere near good enough. 

That starts with Marcus Smart. This game was a good example of even in situations where the Jays are doing their thing, getting poor guard play undoes all of it. When it comes to Smart, we're seeing a noticeable difference in his offensive approach, and it's not working. We know that this team and this offense are at it's best when Smart is creating for others and the ball is moving. You remember that brutal AST% number from the top of the blog right?

Well, part of that happens when a guy who all season is averaging 7 assists a game suddenly is not filling that role. Since the All Star Break, Smart is averaging just 3.7 assists a game, nearly half his season average. Meanwhile, he's also turning the ball over 2.8 times a night. So basically, we're looking at a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio since we got back, which is disgusting. 

If you look at the 3 losses, this is what you see

vs NYK: 2 assists / 1 TO

vs BKN: 8 assists / 3 TOs

vs NYK: 4 assists / 5 TOs

Even in their wins, Smart had 3 or fewer assists in all of them and when you watch the game it matches this data. It feels like they've gone away from having Smart be the offense initiator way too often, and then when he is initiating the offense, he's basically turning it over just as often as he's finding someone for a bucket. Considering most of them are live ball turnovers, that's an issue. He may not be their best player, but how Smart plays is extremely important to the overall success of the team. The Jays can have nearly 70, but if Smart doesn't show up as well, the team struggles.

- The issue last night was Derrick also wasn't that much better either. He finished just 4-12 (1-3), and during this little skid, we're seeing him fight through some struggles offensively as well. Just 42/6.7% shooting over his last 4 games, White's 3P shooting has really taken a dive recently. Over this stretch, he's just 1-15 from behind the arc (1-8 last 2 games). 

This sort of reminds me of what we saw in the Finals. When Smart/White aren't making shots and aren't creating for others, the offense struggles. I suppose this is where Brogdon comes in, but in a game like last night, it's tough to overcome a situation where Immanuel Quickley outscores the entire Celtics backcourt 38-25. 

Guard play might be the most important aspect of the Celtics offense. When they get good or elite guard play, everything changes. When they are getting more negative than good from their guards, nothing else really matters.

- It's pretty annoying that in a game we saw the Celts make 20 3PM, win the 2nd chance points battle 29-7, win the fastbreak battle 19-6, finish with 27 assists and take 25 FTA, that they still do not win.

I gave you the record when making 20 3PM (was 12-0), and they were 27-6 this year when finishing with over 26 assists. They did a ton of things in this game that usually translates to wins, so to check off all those boxes and still find a way to lose is what keeps me up at night.

- I don't know what it is, but I need someone to explain to me how the Celtics turn into the worst defensive rebounding team once things get close in the final minutes of a game. It makes no goddamn sense. Last night, Joe went "big" with the Al/Grant frontcourt instead of staying small. 

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The result?

The Knicks had 3 OREB in the biggest moments of the 2OT. Extra possessions led to extra points. This has been an issue all year, especially in these close games. 

- If there's one thing you can bank on whenever this team plays, it's that they will give up at least 1 buzzer beater to end a quarter. I think we're up to like 37 of these things on the year?

It's truly remarkable how bad this team is at defending last second shots. At this point if I see a team has the ball with any amount of time on the clock, my brain is conditioned to just assume they'll score. This wasn't even bad defense, but it doesn't matter. The Celts love giving up buzzer beaters.

The Ugly

Alright, let's talk about the biggest issue not only of this game, but of all the games since the break.

The Celtics defense is currently a joke.

It starts with each individual guy not being able to guard their own man. One look at the isolation numbers tells you that pretty much every single player on the roster has regressed when it comes to guarding the man in front of them compared to last season

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Why is this an issue? Just look at all these losses since we got back. What is a common theme? The Celts are getting absolutely abused by dribble penetration. If you can't stop things at the point of attack, your defense is cooked. Teams are no longer afraid to attack the Celts defenders because they know they aren't going to get a stop. That's a problem. 

In this game, the formula was simple. Run a simple high screen, get either Al or Grant on a guard, and watch that guard blow right by for an easy bucket. We saw it time and time again

If the Celts are going to switch like this, guys have to be able to provide resistance. The whole point of Grant is he's supposed to provide that defensive versatility to stay with quicker players. Well, in this game, IQ had 13 points on 10 possessions vs Grant. When the Knicks needed a big bucket late, they targeted that matchup. Grant's foot speed was too slow to keep IQ out of the paint, and he made them pay for it.

So just add it up. The perimeter guys like Smart/Jaylen/Brogdon/Tatum etc aren't really stopping anyone. In switches, the Celts bigs have been way too slow. These soft switches aren't exactly working, so that needs to be figured out. We say that the Celts need to be able to lock in defensively when the 3s aren't falling, but last night proved that even in games they ARE falling, unless you can get stops on the other end, none of that matters.

This was more of a pick your poison type situation. With White on the floor, the Knicks were playing through Randle on that switch, and White struggled. The downside was Grant was far too slow to stay with IQ, who the Knicks played through instead. 

- While it's unfair to suggest NBA teams should never make runs, I would say that coming off a game in which a 28 point lead turned into a 16 point hole, backing that up with a 14 point lead turning into an 11 point hole is the exact opposite of what we were all looking for.

The Celts have a closing problem at the moment. I think that's fair to say. Part of that is their guard play, but it's also the play of their two best guys down the stretch. When this team isn't getting efficient looks late, the offense stalls. Nothing I saw in either OT suggested that this team had an idea what to do in these tight moments, and 10 of their 13 FGA were 3PA. Once you get into OT, I feel like that's the time to attack and get looks around the rim. Instead, guys like Tatum/Brown went for the homerun 3PA.

- Nothing like going 19-34 at the rim and 2-13 from the paint. When you miss point blank layups, I'm talking ones that aren't even contested, those usually come back to bite you. To finish 45% in the paint, both at the rim and outside of the RA, is very, very bad.

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So we now turn our page to tonight. Having to play 2OT and then losing was basically the worst case scenario as we already know they'll be without both Rob and Al tonight for a CLE team that has some pretty legit size. At this point, the Celts just need to stop the bleeding and get their confidence back. Stop worrying about what happened the game before, that shit is over and done with. Figure out a way to dig in defensively and the rest will take care of itself.

If you don't, well then things can spiral rather quickly.