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The Read & React: Celtics lose a game of millimeters

One millimeter farther behind the line and maybe Avery’s shot is a 3. A few millimeters farther away from Harden’s elbow and maybe Smart doesn’t draw a flagrant-1. A few more millimeters off the rim and maybe Horford’s layup goes down.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This close (Tim MacLean): A lot of things happened over the course of the game that you could point to and say, "That's why the Celtics lost this game." And though you never want to blame the refs, it's hard not to think about them missing the call on Avery Bradley's late 3-pointer that was ultimately ruled a 2. In fairness, it was really close. But if Boston gets all 3 points there, Marcus Smart is at the line to tie the game after he drew the flagrant-1 from Harden. The Celtics get the ball with a chance to win outright but still have the benefit of knowing they can win it in overtime if their final shot doesn't go. Like I said, never blame the refs. And I want to make it clear that's not what I'm doing here.

That Houston got to the line 31 times versus Boston's 12 speaks volumes—especially when you consider the Celtics took 98(!) shots tonight. What that tells me is they just weren't aggressive enough going to the rim. Granted, a lot of the Rockets' scoring came from Harden, but the point still stands. This game could've been a blowout. The Celtics got kind of lucky they even had a chance to win at the buzzer.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Even in defeat, Celtics show signs of improvement (Alex Kungu): About 99.9% of the time, Al Horford will make a wide open layup. This was just the 0.01% at an unfortunate time. But let’s take a step back and pretend he did hit that shot. The Celtics win a hard-fought game, 108-107, in what would arguably be their first signature win. We’d talk about how good the second unit looked, lead by the three-guard lineup of Rozier-IT-Smart, Boston’s best defensive efforts in that third quarter, and the fact that the Celtics were able to hang around on the boards despite placing Jonas Jerebko in the starting lineup over Amir Johnson. The Celtics were able to generate points with and without Thomas on the floor, shoot at a decent rate from beyond the arc, and assist on 64.2% of their baskets.

Now let’s shift back to reality. The Celtics lost, but that doesn’t take away from the good things that happened in the game. Tonight is one of the first games this season that Boston was able to combine the scrappy junkyard toughness from last season with the more skilled and versatile image of this season, and it had some very promising results. Of course, silver linings are not what fans are expecting or want to hear after going through a whole summer being promised an Eastern Conference Finals matchup with Lebron. But it’s these games in early December that will make you appreciate the product in mid-April.

Versatility on parade (Bill Sy): The column is called The Read & React, and it just dawns on me that we’ve never had a blurb about the read-and-react offense. Here it goes: With the Celtics going small against the Rockets, we got a chance to see Brad Stevens’s motion offense in full effect last night. This is one of Boston’s simplest sets: a big dribbles toward the strong side of the court with one wing moving toward the basket and another toward the ball.

There are a ton of variations. It just depends on how the players are reading the coverage and what they can do with or without the ball. On average, the Celtics generate about 41 open FGAs and hit about 43%. In Houston, the read-and-react produced 48 uncontested shots, but unfortunately, they only made 35% of those shots. Thankfully, they were 25 of 50 on contested looks, but with the Celtics 25th in the league in getting to the line (averaging 20 FTA a night, only 12 against the Rockets), it’s hard keeping up with one of the league’s best offenses when you’re not hitting shots, particularly when they’re open.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Where does Amir Johnson go from here? (Bobby Manning): Brad Stevens finally did it. Ailing from the field, unable to produce much of anything offensively, and with a waning defensive impact, Amir Johnson was finally benched tonight. The result was instantaneous. In his place Jonas Jerebko was more active on loose balls, was able to help a fairly study defensive effort on the perimeter (especially on Ryan Anderson, who shot 0 for 6), and grabbed a fair number of rebounds.

Whether or not Jerebko is the solution to the team's ailments at the four is up for debate. With his high motor, solid rebounding skills, and good perimeter shooting he's a fair option. But what's become clear for the 21st game in a row is that Johnson is useless to this team. It's amazing how far he's fallen off from a year ago, when his defensive metrics ranked among the league's best in the front court and was a formidable double-double threat. His absence from any box score production has been a massive hit to the Cs. Maybe they shouldn't have expected so much from an oft-injured and aging big man, but it's clear he cannot start.

Now the question is what to do with him? He's clearly not a Maine player, and he doesn't strike me as someone who would particularly be complacent with four minutes per game off the bench or even DNPs. His contract would certainly fit as a dump in a larger trade, but who knows when that will happen. For now, it feels like the Celts are in a tough situation with an ineffective player due over $12 million guaranteed this year.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Star power (Lachlan Marr): There certainly is a lot to unpack from that game. But going into the game I most wanted to look at how the Celtics, now equipped with not one but two ‘bona fide’ stars, stacked up against the Houston Rockets, who have made no secret of being hugely reliant on their sole star, James Harden.

Isaiah and Horford were both pretty great and have consistently shown that they both deserve to be involved in any conversation surrounding All-Star candidacy, but James Harden proved to be on another level. A big part of this though is that the Rockets offense is entirely set up to suit James Harden’s skills and abilities. There’s a great article from Mike Prada on how the Rockets offense is like a ‘cheat code’ for James Harden, and there’s a lot of truth to this sentiment.

Boston on the other hand is still running a ‘plug-and-play’ style offense that relies on teamwork and chemistry to get the job done, and while this proved effective last year the team seems less in sync this season. It’s hard to believe that with several roster upgrades, multiple developing young players who are finding their form, and two stars, the Celtics are more disjointed as a team than last season. Yet, that seems to be the case.

One option might be to do what Houston has done and admit the obvious disparities in talent on the roster and set up the team more directly and deliberately around the twin pillars of IT and Horford. However, it doesn’t inspire confidence that both IT and Horford missed buckets in the final seconds of the game and ultimately cost them the team the win, so who knows what the answer is. Maybe we should just try and trade for James Harden?

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