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The Read & React: Celtics lack composure against Spurs

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Brad Stevens falls to 0-7 against Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, but the gap between the teams isn’t as wide as it was before.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Smart (Bill Sy): I love Marcus Smart. I’ll defend his terrible shooting percentage until the day I die. He isn’t progressing—in his three seasons as a Celtic, he’s shot 36.7%, 34.8%, and now 35.9% from the field—but he’s drastically improved as a point guard. Against the Spurs, he tied his season high in assists with 10 after dishing out eight dimes in Brooklyn on Wednesday.

More importantly, he’s a lock-down defender and has a trophy case of Tommy Awards that make him a cornerstone to the Celtics’ rebuild. However, there is a cult of personality that comes with Smart that I sometimes worry gets the best of him and, in turn, the team. Last season, there was some concern that Smart was developing a reputation as a flopper. Even the biggest Smart fans will admit that he occasionally accentuates contact, but by and large, he’s just a relentless defender. Unfortunately, I think his style of play puts a lot of pressure on not just the opposing teams, but also the officials that have to make judgement calls on all the 50/50 plays.

Yesterday afternoon, the Celtics were nursing a late third-quarter lead when Smart got called on this questionable shooting foul on David Lee:

OK, that’s not even questionable. If anything, it’s an over-the-back foul on DLee. Later in the fourth, Smart picked up this curious tech from Kane Fitzgerald:

There’s usually context when it comes to a technical foul. Smart had had a brief run-in with Fitzgerald earlier in the first quarter, and I’m assuming that they had exchanged words a few times throughout the game for Smart to deserve a T without being too demonstrative in that moment later in the fourth.

I don’t begrudge Smart for getting into it with a ref. Tempers can flare in a close game, and it sounds like Marcus was just voicing his coach’s criticism about the officiating and possibly was just a sacrificial lamb here. However, I am concerned that as Smart continues to toe the line between playing hard-nosed defense and creating contact to sell a call, it could have a more wide-ranging effect on the rest of the team, particularly in these tight physical games.

At the buzzer yesterday, the Spurs held a 25-9 advantage in free-throw attempts and were whistled for only twelve fouls total. That’s not all on Smart or his fourth-quarter dust-up with Fitzgerald, but as a tone setter on the defensive end, Smart’s going to have to pick his spots. He doesn’t have the mild-mannered approach of Avery Bradley and Kawhi Leonard that might garner more respect from the refs, but one of the reasons I love Smart so much is that he brings an attitude and energy on the defensive end that’s rare. It’s fierce and fiery and, yes, sometimes he and the Celtics will get burned.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Lacking late execution = loss (Keith Smith): The Celtics battled an elite team, but as has been the case in recent years, they came up short. For this team to turn the corner and go from competitive in these sorts of games to winning them, one thing needs to change in a big way: execution in late-quarter situations. This afternoon, the lack of execution burned the Celtics twice.

At the end of the third quarter, after fighting back to regain the lead, Boston was up by five points. They played two-for-one, as has been their strategy. Going two-for-one is great, but you want to get two good looks out of it. Today, that didn't work out. Isaiah Thomas took a contested three, the Spurs came down and Davis Bertans (who was excellent all game) drilled a three. All of a sudden it was a two-point game—not the end of the world, because Boston should have had the last shot of the quarter. Instead, it ended up with Thomas turning it over. Patty Mills then drained a 35-foot shot at the buzzer and, in the blink of an eye, a five-point lead was a one-point deficit. It didn't sink the Celtics, but that sort of poor execution would show up again later, this time in a much more harmful way.

After falling behind by eight points with just over a minute and a half left, the Celtics’ grit showed up. Thomas made a floater off a pass from Jae Crowder on a Brad Stevens ATO (one of his specialties). The team dug in and forced Kawhi Leonard into a tough miss, and right at a minute to play, Thomas drilled another three to make it a one-possession game. The Garden was rocking, and it looked like this scrappy bunch was on the comeback trail. However, Gregg Popovich was on the other sideline, and he can do some things with ATOs too.

Pop drew up a look designed to get either Patty Mills (who was huge off the bench) or Manu Ginobili (longtime late-game hero) a look. Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley held up their end of the defense, as both players literally hugged Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to prevent them from getting involved. Mills and Ginobili ran a simple cross screen action off LaMarcus Aldridge, and here is where the poor execution showed up. Thomas and Marcus Smart got caught on the cross and switched. Thomas was trailing Mills, so he really had no option but to switch. This put Smart on an island. The eye test says that they weren't supposed to switch. Smart took a step towards staying with Ginobili, but realized Mills was open. He took a half-step Mills's way, but it was far too late.

It isn't really possible without being in the huddle or locker room to know what the players were supposed to do on the play, but it was clear that Thomas and Smart weren't on the same page. If you compare that to today's opponent, you can see where the Celtics are trying to get to. The Spurs switched repeatedly down the stretch, and there was never a point where a Celtic was left running free. Boston can get there, but it doesn't happen after a handful of games together. It is a matter of time and repetition. They'll get it down eventually. If not, they'll keep being "close, but no cigar" in games vs elite teams.