Last night, the Boston Celtics completed a dramatic comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder, winning 101-95 after trailing by 16 points at halftime. You’ll have to excuse me if that statement brings about a sense of déjà vu. After all, almost exactly a year ago, on November 3rd of last season, the Celtics defeated the Thunder under similar circumstances, winning 101-94 after trailing by 18 at the half. Kinda eerie, right?
The Celtics’ offense has dramatically struggled in the early going, ranking among the league’s worst, but the second half of last night’s game provided some encouraging signs of improvement. While concerns about the Celtics’ offense will still persist, we’re starting to get a picture of just what has been going wrong. Notably, the Celtics’ struggles seem to start with a general lack of offensive assertiveness that has permeated all through their worst moments of the season thus far.
One trend that stuck out in this game was a reluctance to attack the rim, particularly in the first half. It felt as if the very second a Celtic stepped foot in the paint, they were obligated to pass the ball away. In ordinary circumstances, this is fine. These passes out of the paint generated some quality looks from behind the arc, and their shooters simply struggled to convert. Most NBA offenses will live with these sorts of possessions.
However, it feels as though offenses that have struggled as much as the Celtics have could use some kind of momentum. Sometimes, players just need to see the ball hit the bottom of the net, and — in the first half, at least — they weren’t. Kick-outs from the restricted area happened so frequently, they started to feel less like good passes and more like a group of players who didn’t feel confident about taking their own shots.
Take this drive from Gordon Hayward for instance: Hayward beats Steven Adams off the dribble, but clearly never even considers forcing the issue at the rim, instead attempting an awkward dump-off to Kyrie Irving in traffic that never really had a chance.
It feels like the Celtics are in dire need of some energy on the offensive end, and stand-still jump-shot attempts don’t necessarily create that. Those looks have their drawbacks, too — the players taking those shots are sometimes just standing around behind the arc, waiting for the ball to come their way. That’s all fine and good when the jumpers are falling, but if the player isn’t involved in any other way, the issue can compound when those shots aren’t finding the net. For instance, Jaylen Brown struggled heavily tonight, and it’s not a coincidence that the closest he seemed to come to figuring it out was when he attacked the rim and narrowly missed out on a poster dunk.
What’s more: when the Celtics did drive to the basket, they often either pulled up for jump shots or passed the ball away, rather than attacking. An explosive athlete like Terry Rozier probably shouldn’t be settling for a mid-range jumper here, when you consider that his man, rookie Hamidou Diallo, is completely off-balance and the help defense is hardly in ideal position.
The Celtics came alive in the second half, and it’s not a coincidence that their explosion featured a heavy dose of offensive aggressiveness. One of the key plays that ignited the second-half surge was this driving dunk from Jayson Tatum. Sometimes, the team just needs to see some energy.
This continued a first-half trend. For much of the night, Tatum was one of the few Celtics willing to actually press the issue in the paint. As much as fans have (perhaps rightfully) wrung their hands about his seemingly-Kobe-induced array of pull-up, two-point jumpers, Tatum has shown that he’s one of the few scorers on the team willing to assert himself for buckets right now. In the first half, he had the most shot attempts in the paint of any Celtic, and they were some of the best looks the offense managed to find.
Attacking the rim has benefits beyond simply putting points on the scoreboard. Perhaps the biggest sequence of the night came midway through the third quarter; with the Boston offense galvanized and the Thunder defense that much more wary of defending the paint, the drive-and-kick looks that floundered in the first half started to find their mark. Al Horford hit three straight triples, all coming off of quick, off-the-dribble passes early in the shot clock that Thunder center Steven Adams simply didn’t have the time to contest.
This illustrates how a willingness to attack the paint will open up opportunities for the rest of the offense. The same motion that generated flat, awkward three-point attempts in the first half was now keying a Boston comeback in the second. While the process behind the shot remained the same, that intangible quality of “momentum” helped alter the result. The Celtics pushed into the paint in the first half, but they didn’t really attack — they were never looking to shoot when they got there. Once those forays into the paint started to yield confident shot attempts in the second half, everything started to loosen up for everyone else.
Boston’s offense finally showed its formidable upside with their 67-point second half last night, arguably for the first time since the season opener against Philadelphia. They still aren’t out of the woods just yet, though. Shooting only 38% from the field against a winless Thunder team missing their best defensive player, Andre Roberson, isn’t exactly the most remarkable accomplishment. Irving was less than impressive yet again, with just 15 points for the night (including consecutive missed free throws in the second quarter). Brown remains seemingly lost, missing two wide open threes and failing to find his shot at any point. Hayward had his worst offensive game since returning to the Celtics’ starting lineup for the regular season, shooting only one-of-five and dishing only one assist.
These offensive issues cannot persist too much longer into the season. The Celtics will absolutely need to score more consistently to compete with early Eastern Conference standouts like Toronto and Milwaukee, especially considering that all-important playoff seeding will be on the line. The Celtics’ defense was certainly impressive tonight, holding the Thunder offense to only 39% from the field themselves and keeping the door wide open for their own comeback, but this team is capable of much more on the other end of the court. A more aggressive scoring mentality might just prove to be the much-needed cure to these offensive woes.