Marcus Smart is not one to mince words.
Back in early November, the Boston Celtics lost to the Chicago Bulls on an evening their offense folded down the stretch. After the sport, Smart placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of his two best teammates. “Every team knows we will Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown], and each team is programmed and studies to stop Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart. “I believe everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys try to pass the ball. They don’t need to pass the ball and that is something that they will learn. They’re still learning and we’re happy with the progress they’re making, but they will must make one other step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team.”
Scoring late in games has been Boston’s kryptonite all season long.
From opening night through Jan. 15, the Boston Celtics led the NBA in clutch minutes played. In that span, they totaled 120 minutes of game time played within the fourth quarter with the scoring margin inside five points. Just one other team within the NBA had even reached 100 by then. Almost every game the Celtics played to that time within the season was relatively close. Until they weren’t.
From Jan. 15 on, the Celtics played just 49 clutch minutes, the second-fewest within the NBA. Only 11 of their final 38 games were close enough to be considered clutch. It was an unlucky byproduct of Boston’s midseason transformation. Seemingly overnight, the Celtics became too good to win close games. They never needed to. For 3 months, they blew out virtually everybody they played. All of that early-season problem solving, all of those repetitions that forged their defense into the NBA’s best? Their crunch-time offense, nonetheless, got virtually none of those reps, and so it entered the playoffs untested and unprepared. The outcomes speak for themselves.
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Boston has played 12 clutch games this postseason, greater than another team. They’re scoring just 89.1 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, down from an already woeful 97.7 within the regular season. Just as distressing, an offense that assisted on over 60 percent of its regular-season field goals is now just an anemic 41.2 percent when it matters most. And eight months after that Bulls game, Smart was singing the identical tune. “We’ve got to maneuver,” he said after Game 4. “We cannot get stagnant, stand still and allow them to load up on us.”
Yet that is exactly what happened Friday night in Boston. With 5:18 remaining, Smart made a 3-pointer to place Boston up 94-90. From there, the Celtics would rating just three more points. So let’s go possession by possession down the stretch of Game 4 to determine what went improper.
We open with Smart walking the ball up the court. By the point Boston gets into any motion, the shot clock is all the way down to 14. Smart passes to Brown, who calls for a screen to attract Jordan Poole, Golden State’s worst defender, into the play. He attacks before Golden State can switch, but settles for an unpleasant, runner as Klay Thompson falls.
And now, we embark upon the sequence that likely cost Boston the sport. Five 3-point attempts. Five misses. On the primary, Tatum tries to screen Andrew Wiggins away from Brown but is unsuccessful. Brown settles for the three with greater than half of the clock remaining. Brick.
The play itself is not bad on possession No. 3. Derrick White hands it off to Tatum and tries to screen him right into a little bit of runway. Tatum doesn’t get any, so he passes it back out to Brown. Wiggins continues to be within the arc from Tatum’s drive, and he doesn’t jump back out to protect Tatum on the perimeter. As a substitute, he maintains help position to discourage the Brown drive knowing that he’ll kick it back to Tatum for the jumper. Wiggins recovers just quickly enough to contest Tatum’s miss.
To date, what stands out here is the simplicity at play. There aren’t any skip passes here, nor are there complex actions based around multiple off-ball screens or cuts. One Celtic is passing to a different nearby Celtic, who may or may not attempt to attack one-on-one before giving up and settling for one more uninspired pass or contested jumper. We get more of that when Brown switch hunts Thompson, gets stonewalled by Green and kicks it out to Smart within the corner. The pass is telegraphed enough for Green to scamper back out and contest. Boston gets the rebound. Green again contests Smart’s miss.
Once more, Brown hunts for Thompson. Once more, he gets nowhere. Al Horford misses a contested 3.
We have finally arrived on Boston’s lone bucket of this stretch, and it got here from barely more sophisticated motion. Tatum starts within the corner before using White’s screen to flash toward the nail. He fakes the jumper once he gets it before driving into Kevon Looney. The important thing here is that Green is not on the basket. He’s out on the perimeter guarding Smart. Tatum knows this, so when he kicks it to Horford within the corner, he knows that Looney won’t have the option to cover the identical ground Green had earlier quite so quickly. Tatum greases the wheels with a little bit shove off of the pass to present Horford the time he needs to fireside off a 3-pointer. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but that is thoughtful offense. Boston gets its best player the ball on the move and lets him make a call based on what the defense is showing him.
Our last possession might be the cleverest on Boston’s part. Slightly than wasting 10 seconds developing nothing, Brown immediately tries a backdoor cut and truly gets a step on Thompson. But the assistance protects against a layup, and Brown’s poor ball-handling, because it has so over and over this postseason, results in a turnover.
By this point, the competitive portion of the sport has ended. Boston’s lead evaporated as its offense indulged all of its worst impulses to present us five uninspired minutes of basketball. Slow-developing plays, limited passing, settling for 3s, reflexive switch-hunting, none of those taken individually are especially unusual late in playoff games.
Such contests often come all the way down to which team’s star is more capable of making the precise form of shots on his own. And this season, Boston’s have not been capable of achieve this. It’s as true now because it was when the season began. When the chips are down, the Celtics get stagnant, and when the Celtics get stagnant, just as they did against the Bulls in November, they lose.