Instead of pushing the Warriors to the brink of the NBA Finals, the Celtics’ kryptonite returns at the worst possible time

Instead of pushing the Warriors to the brink of the NBA Finals, the Celtics’ kryptonite returns at the worst possible time

Marcus Smart is not one to mince words.

In early November, the Boston Celtics lost to the Chicago Bulls on a night when their offense fell back on the stretch. After the game, Smart blamed his two best teammates squarely. “Every team knows we’re going to Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown]and each team is scheduled and studying to stop Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said. “I think everybody’s scouting report is to have these guys try to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball and that’s something they’re going to learn. They’re still learning and we We’re proud of the progress they’re making, but they’re going to have to go the extra mile and find ways to not only create for themselves, but also create for the rest of this team.”

Scoring late has been Boston’s kryptonite all season.

From opening night through January 15, the Boston Celtics led the NBA in minutes played. During that span, they totaled 120 minutes of game time played in the fourth quarter with a scoring margin of less than five points. Only one other NBA team had even reached 100 by then. Almost every game the Celtics have played up to this point in the season has been relatively close. Until they are no longer.

As of Jan. 15, the Celtics have played just 49 clutch minutes, the second-fewest in the NBA. Only 11 of their last 38 games were close enough to be considered clutches. It was an unfortunate byproduct of Boston’s midseason transformation. Seemingly overnight, the Celtics got too good at winning close games. They never needed it. For three months, they blew up virtually everyone they played. All those early-season problem-solving, all those rehearsals that made their defense the best in the NBA? However, their critical time offense got virtually none of those reps, and so they entered the playoffs untested and unprepared. The results speak for themselves.

Boston has played 12 clutch games this postseason, more than any other team. They’re scoring just 89.1 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, down from an already dismal 97.7 in the regular season. Equally painful, an offense that assisted more than 60% of its field goals in the regular season is down to an anemic 41.2% when it matters most. And eight months after that Bulls game, Smart was singing the same tune. “We have to move,” he said after game 4. “We can’t stagnate, stand still and let them take care of us.”

Yet that is exactly what happened Friday night in Boston. With 5:18 remaining, Smart made a 3-pointer to put Boston up 94-90. From there, the Celtics would only score three points. So let’s go possession by possession throughout Game 4 to figure out what went wrong.

We start with Smart walking the ball around the pitch. As Boston enters action, the shot clock is down to 14. Smart passes to Brown, who calls for a screen to draw Jordan Poole, Golden State’s worst defenseman, into the game. He attacks before Golden State can change, but settles for an ugly runner as Klay Thompson falls.

And now we begin the streak that probably cost Boston the game. Five 3-point attempts. Five misses. On the first, Tatum tries to pull Andrew Wiggins away from Brown but is unsuccessful. Brown settles for 3 with more than half the time remaining. Brick.

The play itself isn’t bad on Possession #3. Derrick White hands it to Tatum and tries to filter it into a bit of a lane. Tatum doesn’t get one, so he sends it back to Brown. Wiggins is still inside Tatum’s drive arc, and he’s not jumping to keep Tatum on the perimeter. Instead, he maintains a help stance to deter the Brown drive, knowing he’ll send him back to Tatum for the jumper. Wiggins recovers just fast enough to challenge Tatum’s failure.

What stands out here so far is the simplicity at play. There are no jump passes here, nor complex multi-screen based actions or off-ball cuts. A Celtic passes to another nearby Celtic, who may or may not try to attack one-on-one before giving up and settling for another uninspired pass or a contested jumper. We get more when Brown Switch chases Thompson, gets blocked by Green, and throws him to Smart in the corner. The pass is telegraphed enough for Green to back down and challenge. Boston gets the rebound. Green again challenges Smart’s failure.

Once again, Brown hunts Thompson. Once again, nothing comes of it. Al Horford misses a disputed 3.

We finally got to Boston’s only bucket of this stretch, and it came with a slightly fancier action. Tatum starts in the corner before using White’s screen to flash towards the nail. He fakes the sweater once he gets it before going to Kevon Looney. The key here is that Green is not in the basket. He’s on the perimeter keeping Smart. Tatum knows that, so when he kicks Horford into the corner, he knows Looney won’t be able to cover the same ground Green had earlier as quickly. Tatum greases the wheels with a little push off the pass to give Horford the time he needs to shoot a 3-pointer. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but it’s a thoughtful offense. Boston gives their best player the ball on the move and lets them make a decision based on what the defense shows them.

Our latest possession is probably Boston’s smartest. Rather than waste 10 seconds developing nothing, Brown immediately tries a backhand cut and steps on Thompson. But the assist protects against a layup, and Brown’s poor ball handling, as he has done so many times in the playoffs, results in a turnover.

At this point, the competitive part of the game is over. Boston’s lead evaporated as its offense indulged in all its worst impulses to give us five minutes of uninspired basketball. Slow-developing games, limited passing, settling for 3s, reflexive switch hunting, none of these individually are particularly rare late in the playoffs.

Such contests often come down to the star of the team who is most capable of creating the right kind of shots on their own. And this season, Boston hasn’t been able to do that. This is as true today as at the start of the season. When the chips are down, the Celtics stagnate, and when the Celtics stagnate, just like they did against the Bulls in November, they lose.

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