Rather than marginalize the Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Celtics’ kryptonite returns at the worst possible time


Rather than marginalize the Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Celtics' kryptonite returns at the worst possible time

Marcus Smart is not one to mince his words.

In early November, the Boston Celtics lost to the Chicago Bulls on a night that saw their offense collapse at the track. After the game, Smart shifted the blame squarely onto the shoulders of his top two teammates. “Every team knows we’re going to Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown]and every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen,” says Smart said. “I think every scouting report is about getting these guys to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball and that’s something they will learn. They’re still learning and we’re proud of the progress they’re making, but they need to take another step and find ways to create not only for themselves but for others on this team.”

Scoring late in games has been Boston’s kryptonite all season.

From opening night through January 15, the Boston Celtics led the NBA in clutch minutes played. In that span, they totaled 120 minutes of play in the fourth quarter, with a goal advantage of within five points. Only one other team in the NBA had even reached 100 before then. Almost every game the Celtics have played up to this point in the season has been relatively close. Until they weren’t anymore.

As of January 15, the Celtics only played 49 clutch minutes, the second fewest in the NBA. Only 11 of their last 38 games have been close enough to be counted as a clutch. It was an unfortunate by-product of Boston’s midseason transformation. Seemingly overnight, the Celtics became too good to win close games. They never had to. For three months they blew up practically everyone they played against. All those early-season fixes, all those replays that made their defense the best in the NBA? However, her crunch-time offense got virtually none of those reps, and so she 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, compared to an already paltry 97.7 in the regular season. Equally troubling, an offense that assisted in over 60 percent of its field goals in the regular season is now an anemic 41.2 percent when it counts. And eight months after that Bulls game, Smart sang the same tune. “We to have move,” he said after Game 4. “We can’t stagnate, stand still and let them load on us.”

But that’s exactly what happened on Friday night in Boston. With 5:18 remaining, Smart made a 3-pointer to put Boston at 94-90. From there, the Celtics would only pick up three points. So let’s go through the course of Game 4, possession by possession, to find out what went wrong.

We open with Smart leading the ball up the pitch. By the time Boston springs into action, the shot clock is down to 14. Smart passes Brown, who demands a screen to bring in Golden State’s worst defender, Jordan Poole. He attacks before Golden State can make a switch but settles for an ugly runner when Klay Thompson falls.

And now we begin the sequence that probably cost Boston the game. Five 3-point attempts. Five misses. On the first try, Tatum tries to keep Andrew Wiggins away from Brown but is unsuccessful. Brown settles for the 3 with more than half of the clock remaining. brick.

The game itself is not bad with ball possession No. 3. Derrick White hands it to Tatum and tries to get him into a patch of airstrip. Tatum doesn’t get any, so he passes them on to Brown. Wiggins is still inside the arch of Tatum’s driveway, and he doesn’t jump back to guard Tatum on the perimeter. Instead, he maintains the assist position to deter the Brown drive, knowing he’ll knock it back to Tatum for the jumper. Wiggins recovers just enough to deny Tatum’s miss.

What is striking here so far is the simplicity of the game. There are no skip passes here, nor complex actions based on multiple off-ball screens or cuts. A Celtic matches another nearby Celtic who may try to attack one on one before giving up and settling for another uninspired pass or a contested knight. We get more of this as Brown chases Switch Thompson, gets bricked by Green and corners it to Smart. The pass is telegraphed far enough for Green to scurry back out and line up. Boston gets the rebound. Green again denies Smart’s miss.

Once again, Brown is chasing Thompson. Once again he’s getting nowhere. Al Horford misses a hard-fought 3rd place

We’ve finally arrived at Boston’s lone bucket of this stretch, and it came from some more refined action. Tatum starts in the corner before using White’s screen to flash onto the nail. He fakes the sweater as soon as he gets it before driving into Kevon Looney. The key here is that Green is off the basket. He’s out in the perimeter guarding Smart. Tatum knows that, and as he corners it to Horford, he knows Looney won’t be able to cover the same ground Green used to have so quickly. Tatum lubricates the wheels away from the pass with a little nudge to give Horford the time he needs to fire a 3-pointer. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but that’s a thoughtful insult. Boston gets its best player moving and lets him make a decision based on what the defense is showing him.

Our latest possession is probably Boston’s smartest. Instead of wasting 10 seconds not developing anything, Brown immediately attempts a backdoor cut and actually gets a step on Thompson. But the help protects against a layup, and Brown’s poor ball handling, as has happened so often this postseason, leads to a turnover.

At this point, the competitive portion of the game is over. Boston’s lead dwindled when his offense gave in to all of his worst impulses to give us five uninspired minutes of basketball. Slow-moving plays, limited passing, settling for 3s, knee-jerk switch-hunting, none of these considered individually, are particularly uncommon late in playoff games.

Such competitions often boil down to which team star is better able to get the right shots themselves. And this season, Boston hasn’t been able to do that. It’s as true today as it was at the start of the season. When chips are down, the Celtics stagnate, and when the Celtics stagnate like they did against the Bulls in November, they lose.

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