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Piss Poor Late Game Execution And A Joel Embiid Nuclear Bomb All But Locked The Celtics Into The 2 Seed

Jesse D. Garrabrant. Getty Images.

And with that, the 1 seed quest is officially over. I'm sorry to say, but the Bucks aren't losing their final 3 games of the season. To pull that off, not only were the Celtics going to have to end the season undefeated, they were going to need some help, and neither has happened. First, they did not go undefeated, as you can see from the score above. In terms of the help, I'm not sure where this Joel Embiid was when the Sixers played the Bucks the other day, but alas, the 2 seed it is. One more win (or a PHI loss) clinches the 2 spot for the Celts, which they have an opportunity to get tonight at home against the Raptors. Do that, and rest everyone until the playoffs, that is now the path.

It would be a lie to say last night wasn't frustrating, mostly because the Celts had every chance to win this game with about 6 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. You could argue there was a slight choke factor in how they closed the game, but my main feeling when I woke up today is similar to how I felt after the shorthanded OT loss to MIL. I'm annoyed, but not really concerned. There's a part of me that feels confident that despite an Embiid nuclear explosion and no Jaylen/Rob, that the Celts still competed and were right there. There's also a part of me that watched them display piss poor execution on both ends of the floor to end this game, similar to what happened in MIL.

It's hard to sweep a team, and the Celts still won the season series 3-1 including already winning on this floor. There's a strong chance these two teams meet in the playoffs, and I do think people need to acknowledge that things will be different than the regular season, but that is true for both sides. 

While it's possible to not be overly concerned coming out of this game, I do think it's important that the team not ignore some of the things that ended up costing them at the end. If those things pop up in a playoff series, things will not work out. So big picture, that night was whatever. Small, more current picture, we saw some bad habits creep in at the worst possible times.

Let's talk about it.

The Good

- This might be the first time we're doing it all season, but Derrick White gets the top spot in this blog. He was tremendous on both ends of the floor, and for my money was the best Celtic to play last night

What's crazy is he didn't really start off all that great, especially when it came to his jumper. Just 2-8 (1-4) in the first half, I'd say it's safe to suggest we witnessed quite the offensive explosion over the final 24 minutes. By the end of it, White played 40 minutes, finished 9-18 (4-10), and as you can see above he did a little bit of everything. We saw the All NBA First Team defense, he added two more blocks to his already league-leading total, he made big-time shots late, the list goes on and on.

In terms of his individual defensive matchups, we saw White guard Harden on 18 possessions and allow just 4 points. Tyrese Maxey only had 5 points on 34 possessions while shooting 2-5. Add in the fact that he only turned the ball over twice, and this may have been one of Derrick's better all around games of the season. Sure it sucks it came in a loss (similar to his stellar showing in the MIL OT loss), but after struggling a little bit vs WSH/MIL last week it was good to see Derrick getting back to the level he's been playing at basically since mid January. 

My guess is his place in the starting lineup is set in stone even once we get into the postseason, and it's hard to argue that it shouldn't be. He's been rock solid on both ends all season.

Oh, and for those curious, White played all 12 minutes of the 4th quarter and went 5-6 for 15 points. That's pretty big time. 

- The same can be said about Malcolm Brogdon. For long stretches, it was the offense of Brogdon that was keeping the Celts afloat while Embiid seemed to get whatever he wanted. 

He finished with 18/4/3 on 7-16 (2-4) in his 27 minutes off the bench, and last night was another example of what type of advantage he's going to have going up against other second units. Like White, Brogdon took care of the ball (1 TO), and seemed to get to whatever spot he wanted, especially the paint

This is something to remember if these two teams play each other in a series. Nothing we saw last night told us that the Sixers perimeter defenders are going to be able to keep the Celts guards out of the paint consistently. For Brogdon, 12 of his 16 FGA came in the paint. For White, it was nearly half of his 18 FGA. For Smart, 8 of his 15 FGA came in the paint. Given their size and strength, we saw each guard be able to utilize their dribble drives to get into high percentage areas. There was no real perimeter resistance, and this was the fully healthy Sixers roster.

Now maybe you're wondering why Brogdon didn't close this game, but I think you have to keep things in perspective. At 27 minutes, Brogdon came out at the 7 minute mark of the 4th with the score tied at 81. Being this close to the playoffs, I have no problem with keeping his minutes under 30. It's worked all year, I don't need to push him just to win a game like this. I saw enough in his minutes to know he can be effective in this matchup. 

- I talk all the time about how important it is for the Celts to get good guard play. This game was the perfect example of why. Early in the game, I would say the guard play was mostly bad, especially offensively. Nobody could make a shot. In the second half, all three guards woke up and the momentum shifted. 

I would argue that on most nights if you're getting 61 points and 11 assists from that trio, you're going to be in a pretty good position to win the game as long as the stars do their job. 

- He didn't score, he didn't take a single FGA, but I thought Blake was very good in his 8 minutes. His energy and effort on the glass are what helped the Celts get that lead in the fourth quarter. It was certainly better than the Kornet minutes that's for sure, and I just continue to find myself enjoying the Blake Griffin Experience. 

I'm at the point now where I think it's time that Blake be the first back up big off the bench among the Kornet/Muscala/Blake trio. Kornet hasn't exactly looked all that great, Muscala isn't really doing anything, and time after time we see Blake make an actual impact on the floor whenever he gets his number called. He's a guy that knows his role, embraces it, and then thrives in it.

- Offensively, I'd say the approach was what we want. The Celts moved the ball (28 AST), took care of the ball (8 TOs), matched PHI in points in the paint (44) while taking more FGA in the paint (40 vs 38), they dominated 2nd chance points 21-7 and fast break points 15-0.

At the end of the day, they lost, but if they do shit like that consistently, they won't lose many. To me, last night was more about shot making than their approach or style.  More often than not, when the Celts hit 28 assists, they win. On the season, they are 28-8 when they do. The frustrating part is last night, the WSH loss, and the UTA loss have all come recently despite hitting that number. Outside of the Wizards blowout, those two other losses were by a combined 3 points. 

The Bad

- One of the weirdest parts of the 2022-23 Celtics season is the more rest they get, the worse they somehow play?

I know, that makes no sense to your brain. Logic tells you that it should be the other way around right? Well that is not the story with this team. See for yourself

Just 9-8 on the season when the Celts get 2 or more days rest. Compare that to the B2B record and how does that make any sense? Having not played since Thursday night, I did not see the Celts coming out and shooting 41/33%. I suppose maybe I should have given that chart I just showed you, but man could they not buy a bucket. Just 40/26% in the first half, the shotmaking never really came around. Even in the 3rd, the Celts shot just 38/28% and as you can imagine, the majority of this came on open/wide open looks.

Sometimes shit just doesn't go down for you. The Celts did find other ways to score and stay in the game which was nice, but at the end of the day the NBA is a make or miss league.

Take PJ Tucker for example. Last night was the 2nd game of his season that he made 3 3PM. He found himself open, and he made his shots, credit to him. Let's look at those though

This is something that I think will translate in a series, and what I mean by that is what the Celts do in terms of their rotations when they decide to double Embiid. As you can see, in the first clip Al doubled, but there was nobody to help the helper which lead to that clean look for Tucker. Smart had to run all the way over from the opposite block, and Tucker was already in his shot before Smart got to the other side of the paint. Maybe he should have left earlier, with White helping down to check Harris.

On the second one, we see the double from Smart, but Tobias Harris does a good job of screening Tatum just enough to create the space. I would also argue that this was not exactly a hard closeout by Tatum, which was costly. 

The same thing happened on the third 3PM, where White and Tatum just kind of stood there and watched/dared Tucker to shoot it. Maybe that's the play given his percentages, but the situation certainly called for some actual defense. He had made his previous two, he was feeling good, and momentum was in the balance. To not even contest that 3rd attempt is just bad defense, and Tucker made the Celts pay for it.

If the Celts are going to send extra bodies at Embiid, their rotations have to be much better. They have to close out harder on shooters and make those guys put the ball on the floor. We didn't exactly see that in the biggest moments of the game.

- What we did see was another bonehead decision by Grant. Overall I thought Grant played fine. He was 4-7 (2-4) from the floor, made some big threes and whatnot. But to get that tech late in the 4th quarter is just stupid basketball. I don't care if this is what he says happened

Guess what Grant? You're not going to get the benefit of the doubt with the officials. Why? Because you won't stop barking at them. If that's what happened, is that a double standard? Yup! Does it matter? Nope! Because you have to understand the situation. This came at a time when it felt like the Celts were starting to lose their composure a little bit, and there's just no need for something like that. What did he think was going to happen? The ref would say "you're right Grant, we'll change the call!"

Just get your ass back on defense and try and get a stop. The complaining has never worked, and it certainly didn't last night.

- It seemed like the plan was let Embiid get whatever he wants and stop everyone else, and while that works in theory, sometimes you just have to tip your cap to a generational performance.

That's what we saw last night from Embiid.

If you care about the individual matchups, it didn't really matter who the Celts used

it was buckets for everyone. And listen, if Embiid is going to go 20-25 from the floor, including making a ridiculous amount of tough fadeaways and midrange jumpers, just tip your cap. Don't be so insecure that you can't acknowledge when a guy was just on another level. 

Embiid was 7 for 7 from the restricted area, 8 for 11 from the paint, 5-6 from midrange, and 0-1 from deep. That's ridiculous. Add in 12-13 from the line, and that was about as clear an MVP performance as you're going to see. The Celts didn't really have an effective approach at any point of the game.

Now, if you're telling me that Embiid has to go 20-25 for 52 points just to squeak out a 2 point win, I feel pretty good. But I think we can all agree that if these teams meet in a series, they should probably look to try some different things. I can't imagine we're going to see a whole lot of Embiid vs Kornet in isolation in a playoff series.

The Ugly

- Ultimately, there were two main factors for me as to why the Celts lost this game.

The first, is their star didn't exactly pull his weight. Coming off the huge games against MIL/UTA, that was not the Jayson Tatum we saw last night. He finished 7-20 (2-8) from the floor and was a team worst -13 in his 37 minutes, and there was one sequence that really bothered me and it came at one of the most important parts of the game.

This possession right here

What that clip doesn't show you is that Tatum got the ball with about 14 seconds on the shot clock and he just….held it. There was no off ball movement from anyone. Not only do I not love the fact that Tatum held the ball so long and allowed the defense to recover, but it was also an example of him not making a quick decision. He always tends to get into trouble when he does that, and this was a pretty big momentum sequence.

Up 4 with the ball under 5 minutes, settling for a highly contested low percentage look is just poor offensive execution. This wasn't a case where he got the ball at the end of the clock and had to hoist up a prayer. You'll remember Embiid immediately went down and his a jumper, and then got that AND1 on Smart after Horford missed a 3PA on the next possession.

In the 4th quarter, Tatum took just 2 FGA (0-2), while also missing a pretty important FT. There is no excuse for Tatum to have the least amount of FGA of any player who hit the floor that wasn't named Sam Hauser. Part of that is on Joe, part of that is on the players, and part of that is on Tatum for not finding ways to be aggressive down the stretch. He played more passive than I remember, and that one possession at the 4:39 mark is a great example of what that looks like. 

- FTs, they're important. Always have been and always will be. As a team, the Celts were 6-7 entering the 4th quarter. They finished 10-16 (1 intentional miss), so call it 10-15 on FTA they were actually trying to make. To go 4-8 on real FTA in the 4th quarter with Tatum/Brogdon/Smart being the ones who missed in a game you lost by 2 points is extremely fucking annoying. Those are three of your better FT shooters, and to miss like that in a game like this is just asking for the result we got. The Basketball Gods always make you pay when you fuck around late at the FT line.

We saw it against NYK, we saw it against CLE, and we saw it again last night. I'll remind you, this is the 2nd best FT shooting team in the NBA this season. That's fun.

- Through the first 6 minutes of the fourth quarter, the Sixers had 9 points. They took a timeout at the 6:18 mark with the Celts up 86-81.

Here's how the Celtics defense looked from that moment on

7-8 (4-4) shooting over the final 6:18. If you want to know why the Celts lost this game, look right there. This is what I mean when I say the late game execution was piss poor on both ends. You can't force more than 1 miss in half a quarter? What the shit is that? We just watched them get many stops in the first 6 minutes, so what happened in the final 6? That's losing basketball if I've ever seen it.

Now that the 1 seed is out, the focus is now about winning 1 more game and then putting everyone on ice until the real games start. The rest of the seeding in the East isn't exactly locked up yet, especially seeds 6-10, so it's hard to know right now who the Celts will play, but I'm not sure it matters. The Celts run will come down to how they play, not who they play. With their path now pretty much determined in terms of their seed, rest up and be ready to go.

Love and Trust.