There's something perfectly fitting about the Celtics, a young team with a sporadically productive offense at best, having one of their worst shooting performances of the season against the Dallas Mavericks, a team that executes to a T offensively and is led by possibly the preeminent shotmaker of a generation in Dirk Nowitzki.
Nights like this expose one of the Celtics' (numerous) flaws: For all the talented players on the roster, there's no one reliable source of steady offense. Jared Sullinger can take over games at times, but his dominance is matchup-dependent. Avery Bradley can drill mid-range jumpers all night sometimes, but he gets slowed down by quick, long defenders who contest his shots well. Jeff Green monster performances do happen, but they're about as frequent as a full moon.
Plain and simple: The Celtics have nights where they search everywhere for offense and they find nothing.
On the other side, there's Dirk.
"He's one of those players that we almost automatically have to double," Sullinger mused postgame. "I know I contested two of his shots by almost smacking his hand, and it just went right in. He's a special player."
Nowitzki, along with Kevin Durant, is one of the two closest things this league has to a truly unguardable scorer. At 35 years old, 36 this spring, he's still going strong. With a dizzying combination of post-ups, outside shots and silly-looking one-legged fadeaways that somehow go in, he's lethal in a totally unpredictable way. He's also so big and so long that even when you do guess his next move and manage to put a hand in his face, he scores anyway.
Nowitzki had a typical Nowitzki night, managing 20 points on 7-of-16 shooting despite sitting a big chunk of the fourth quarter with a blowout lead in hand. The Mavs won 102-91, a final score that looked closer than the game really was, against a Celtics team that very clearly lacks a domineering scorer it can count on.
"They were active defensively, and I thought their length bothered us at the rim," coach Brad Stevens said. "In the first half, we missed a couple corner threes, we missed dunks, we missed layups. Some of that was their defense - their length challenging us. But we felt at halftime like we were in really good shape. We had played at a very good rate - we just didn't make shots. That happens sometimes. You can live with that."
You can, in spurts, but the Celtics have tried to survive an entire season with their volatile chucking approach, and the results overall haven't been encouraging. At 18-34 on the season, the C's record is showing the effects of the team's flaccid offense.
Tonight was a game we've seen before - the Celtics came out taking decent shots, they'd miss a couple, and then things started to snowball and the decision-making worsened. Eventually, the poor shooting became self-fulfilling.
"We settled for too many jump shots," Gerald Wallace said. "We've been a jump-shooting team. We live by it, we die by it. We've got to learn to put pressure on the defense. You don't put any pressure on the defense by shooting jump shots, especially on a night like tonight when our jump shots aren't falling. We've got to learn to get to the rim and force them to guard us in different ways."
The Celtics' weaknesses were especially evident tonight - through three quarters, the team was shooting 29.9 percent from the field, which would have been its worst output all season and one of the five worst in the whole NBA. It took a few garbage-time jumpers from Chris Johnson, who made four straight 3-pointers in the late minutes, to bring the team up to an almost-respectable 35.9 percent clip.
The Celtics have enough talent that they're capable of performing better than this. That doesn't mean it's easy. It will require a higher effort level, smarter execution and perhaps a couple of lucky bounces.
"I think we had a lot of opportunities tonight," Wallace said. "I felt like we could have punished them on the block. They're a long team, and they make you move from one end of the court to the other. We didn't do that tonight - we settled for jump shots. We've got to understand that just because you're open doesn't mean that it's necessarily a good shot. We've got to try to get to the rim and try to get to the rim and try to draw fouls."
In a nutshell, that's been the team's problem all season. Fixing it might be a long-term project.