After a gut-wrenching loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, the Boston Celtics returned home to TD Garden on Wednesday for a matchup against the Toronto Raptors.
The Celtics jumped to a 16-point lead early in the game, but poor execution and some questionable decisions ultimately led to another heartbreaking defeat. Here are three takeaways from Boston's 110-107 loss to Toronto in today's edition of 3 in the Key:
Building an Offensive Identity
"Pace and Space" is an excellent foundation to build off of, but it's still just a general concept. While the team has been productive offensively, ranking ninth in the NBA with a 106.2 offensive rating, they haven't been tremendous when it comes to consistently attacking mismatches or exploring their matchups overall.
The "evenness" of this team has played itself out by eventually leading to whoever manifests as the "hot hand" throughout the course of the game. For example, it took Jared Sullinger's third quarter assertiveness against Houston to help jolt some life into a walking dead offense.
There are merits to this approach, but it also doesn't create a structure or hierarchy to help create continuity when things aren't working well, which was part of the problem on Wednesday night.
In the first quarter, Boston began the game by exploiting mismatches; the Raptors were without their starting frontcourt, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, so the Celtics ruthlessly penetrated the basket for layups, dunks, and kick outs to the perimeter.
Toronto had absolutely zero rim protection to speak of, as 10 of Boston's 19 field goals came at the rim, and an additional three of their perimeter attempts came as a result of paint penetration.
But things changed around the middle of the second quarter and Boston stopped getting to the lane like they did early in the game. Brad Stevens said that while Boston's execution wasn't the same; Toronto just started playing at another level.
"I thought the biggest difference in the game was the physicality and athleticism. They turned it up," Stevens said when asked about what changed after the first period. "The last two and a half or three quarters it was hard for us to get the same looks we had in the first quarter."
From the midway point of the second quarter until the final buzzer, only 42.6 percent of Boston's shot attempts came at the rim, largely due to Toronto's physicality, but also because of their own inability to manipulate the mismatches that were in their favor.
It was turnovers that doomed the C's against Toronto, which was partially a byproduct of the "anything goes/equal opportunity" playing style that gets everyone involved, but doesn't necessarily set a pecking order from which to pick on the opponent and force them to adjust defensively.
The team could benefit from having a bit of a go-to plan to help settle things down and limit the randomness when things are starting to come unhinged. When players have specific things to focus on -- such as getting Jared Sullinger the ball in the post, getting Jeff Green isolated on the left elbow, or running Avery Bradley off screens -- it can help to provide a context to re-build rhythm and limit mistakes.
Down by four with 10:15 to go, Boston runs their standard motion offense and feeds Kelly Olynyk, who "reads and reacts" the double team with a pass to Marcus Smart. Though Smart is relatively open, he isn't the player you want jacking up a three when your offense is on the ropes. Smart, a 23.8 percent three-point shooter, misses the shot, and then turns the ball over on another rushed shot attempt.
On this possession, going with a "pet play" to one of the team's best players, Jared Sullinger or Jeff Green, probably would've provided more security and reliability. Boston's equal opportunity system is fantastic, but when you need a play, sometimes calling a set for your best player is necessary.
Boston did occasionally try getting the ball to their go-to scorers, but the execution just wasn't there. In the clips above, Smart can't complete a simple entry pass to Sullinger, who had his man completely sealed on the low block, and then Bradley and Green just dribbled the ball out of bounds.
In many ways, Rajon Rondo is the only player this team can rely on to execute the simple (and unbelievable) plays when the defense is grinding like Toronto was. Rondo was once again a superstar, with his 30th triple-double of his career, which included 15 assists, one secondary assist, and one free throw assist, to only five turnovers.
As Boston moves forward throughout the season, they may need to establish more of a hierarchy when the going gets tough, like it did against Toronto. The "evenness" can be helpful, but through four games, it's clear that Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, and occasionally Kelly Olynyk, must carry the load of the offense.
Marcus Smart has some learning to do
Let's get this out of the way: Kyle Lowry owns Marcus Smart right now. Lowry was dominant last night and Smart was erratic at best, balancing out his timely scoring with a litany of out of control and ill-advised decisions. This is forgivable for a rookie who is both four games into his career and has a track history of "trying to do too much."
Again, some of this can also be tied to the "everything goes" offensive style Boston's has played. While confidence building, a player like Smart could benefit from having the reigns pulled back in certain scenarios, where "valuing the basketball" is paramount to winning the game. While it's a good general rule of thumb to create confidence in inexperienced players by giving them the "green light" and not be bashful, there are times when it hurts too.
Smart doesn't lack for confidence and though his development is an important part of this season, he'll likely benefit in the long run from being forced to value logic over emotion when playing situational basketball. There is a time and place to "tilt" and to "yield" -- Smart has yet to find that balance point early on in what has been a feast/famine roller coaster of awe-striking and awful playmaking bids -- through a mere four games!
Stevens continuously praised Lowry throughout the press conference, not just for his scoring, but also for the plays that often don't show up in the box score. Interestingly, Lowry's early career is comparable to Smart's. In Lowry's first four years in the league, he played 17.3 minutes per game, averaging 8.7 points on a 26.4 three-point percentage.
Lowry earned his minutes by playing balls-to-the-wall, scrappy basketball, but his scoring was always a work-in-progress. Early on, Smart should aspire to become a player like Lowry.
"I definitely think [Lowry] is a guy that he should look up to and learn from, but there's a lot of guys in this league like that, and there's only one Kyle Lowry," Stevens said when asked if Smart should look up to Lowry. "He's a unique player. He's different than Marcus in a lot of ways, but Marcus can certainly learn from him."
Smart's helter skelter performance down the stretch took away from Boston just as much as it helped, so there are plenty of lessons to be learned. Stevens thinks that Smart was emotional after the game, but looks at that as a positive, likely due to his "warrior mentality."
"I'd rather he learn from the three, but you can't put the ball in front of a guy that good," Stevens said. "Kyle Lowry's value does not just consist of him scoring 35 points, it consists of him making plays like that night in, night out. So he'll learn that, he'll grow up from that."
As Smart grows throughout his rookie season, Stevens may need to put on the red light, but once those days are over, it'll be fascinating to see what kind of player he becomes. If he develops into anything that resembles Kyle Lowry, the Boston Celtics have something special in Marcus Smart.