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Celtics sputter to the end of West Coast swing and 9 other takeaways from both Utah and Portland

It was a disappointing finish to the trip, but there were some bright spots for Boston

NBA: Boston Celtics at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Due to some technical difficulties, you are getting one big batch of takeaways from the last two games of the Celtics road-trip at Utah and at Portland.

1. Both games played out with an all-too-familiar story: Celtics have a sluggish start, fall way behind, rally back and fall short. Against a team like the Suns, Boston’s talent overcomes and they can win. Against good teams like the Jazz and Trail Blazers, especially on the road, they can’t muster the energy to get it all the way back and to then hold on.

The slow starts are getting frustrating in their predictability. While the comebacks are exciting, that’s a roller coaster you only need to ride a few times before you’re sick of it. Eventually, Brad Stevens has got to figure out a way to get the team flying right out of the gate. This type of play isn’t sustainable for another 60+ games.

Much like the backboard/rim in Portland, the Celtics are just a little off their level.

2. Another theme that was consistent in both games was the Celtics inability to defend pick and roll actions. Both Utah and Portland have play with two good ballhandlers, Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell for the Jazz and Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum for the Blazers, and two good roll-men in Rudy Gobert and Jusuf Nurkic. Boston struggled to contain the ballhandlers initially in both games. Then once they got that under control, they had a hard time with the rollers.

The Celtics like to switch everything, but are more reluctant to do so against traditional 1/5 or 2/5 pick and rolls. They end up giving up too much size to switch those. If they do, they usually scramble out of it with a quick switch-back or jump-switch. In both of these games, they got caught multiple times. Some sort of tweak has to come when defending the NBA’s most-common and most-simple action.

3. Controlling the defensive glass has been a problem for a couple of years now and remains an issue. Utah grabbed eight offensive rebounds, while Portland snagged 15. While Al Horford is a wonderfully versatile player and an amazing defender, he’s not a rebounding machine. That’s the tradeoff you make with him. That also mean the rest of the team has to do their part. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are excellent rebounders for their position, but the rest of the Celtics are average on the boards at best. Defending the three-point line aggressively and switching almost everything are the keys to Boston’s league-best defense. But defense doesn’t end until you have the ball. The Celtics need to gang-rebound to make sure they finish those terrific defensive possessions with the ball.

4. The issues are just as glaring on the other end of the floor, maybe even more so. Missing wide-open shots is something that will eventually balance out. It always does. That part isn’t a real concern. What is concerning is two other season-long trends: the ball getting sticky and a lack of free throws.

Boston has the ability to be the best ball-movement team in the NBA. Almost every rotation player is a good to elite passer. And they are a naturally unselfish bunch. When it shows up, it’s the most beautiful basketball you could ever want to watch. But the Celtics also have a couple of guys who love, I mean LOVE, to pound the rock. Rozier and Marcus Morris are iso guys at heart. They want that ball in their hands for at least 5-10 dribbles. When they are in the game together, it becomes a “your turn, my turn” show. When they have it going, it’s great and Boston scores. When they aren’t hitting shots, it is ugly basketball.

Among the starters, they are generally more than happy to move the ball, but guys still want touches and shots. If they go a couple of trips without feeling the ball, they get antsy. You can see it with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. If they go without getting the ball for a stretch, you know a shot is going up the next time they touch it. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s a basketball thing. Everyone wants to feel involved. The easy way to feel involved is to get the ball and try to make something happen. It’s on Stevens to make sure they remember to trust each other and to make the right play.

5. What about the lack of free throws? The Celtics sit next to last in the NBA with just 19.5 free throw attempts per game. Only the Orlando Magic, who lack a single offensive creator on the roster, are worse. Boston is always going to shoot less free throws than their opponents. The Celtics take a bunch of jumpers every game and they play aggressive defense that leads to a lot of fouls. But it’s not about shooting fewer free throws than their opponents, it’s about not getting to the line at all.

For a team that boasts multiple guys who can break their defender down off the bounce and get to the rim at will, 19.5 free throw attempts per game is pathetic. When the jumpshots aren’t falling, you have to get points in other ways. The Celtics have got to force the issue and get in the paint looking for contact, as opposed to hitting the lane always looking to pass. This is especially true when they have a team in the penalty and free points are just sitting there for the taking.

6. Despite the struggles, it isn’t all bad. Boston found some stuff on this West Coast swing that should really work. In addition, they now have one big road trip out of the way. Outside of games against Toronto and Utah, both in Boston, the schedule lightens up considerably for the rest of the month. The team has preached patience, and that patience is wearing thin. But if they can turn it around the rest of the month, it will all feel a lot better.

7. So what did they find that worked? Let’s start with the bench. We all know the Celtics have ridiculous depth. That causes some of the issues with playing time and touches. But where it goes well is that Boston can crush opposing second units. The Trail Blazers turned to an all-reserve unit in the third quarter and the Celtics destroyed that group. Because Boston has starter-level players on their bench, they can turn games around in a hurry. Once the actual starters begin playing better, the reserves might actually stretch leads out.

8. What about Jayson Tatum? We’ve all had some hand-wringing about his play to start the season. Too much dribbling and too many contested, long two-point shots. In these last two games, he looked like the guy we’ve all come to know and love. He’s attacking bigs off the dribble and getting to the rim. He’s punishing smaller players on mismatches. And he’s knocking down open jumpers. Tatum’s third quarter outburst against Portland was just one example. This is the kind of shot he makes when he’s feeling good:

9. The offense also seems to be finding mismatches better. Tatum against smaller players was mentioned above, but both Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown are being used in sets designed to get them against a smaller player in the post off quick duck-in plays. Stevens wants his players to play a free-flowing offense, but when they are struggling set plays like these quick-hitting post-ups are good to get things back under control.

10. Lastly, but most importantly, the coaches and players realize that a 7-6 start isn’t where anyone wants to be. There aren’t any moral victories. There is no shame in losing games in Utah and Portland. Those are tough places to play, especially when both teams are good. But Boston is supposed to be the kind of team that can overcome that.

After the game against the Trail Blazers all of the “It’s going to take some time” comments were gone. Stevens called himself out for poor coaching. Kyrie Irving said “We’re not as good as we think we are. That’s what it comes down to.” Al Horford had similar comments about his own play, and the team as a whole. Jayson Tatum spoke on the slow starts, staying “We might be just a little bit too cool when we start. When we come back, we’re in desperation mode, we play like that the whole time, we look pretty good.”

You can say it is just lip service, but recognizing there are problems and that “patience time” is over and it’s time to fix things is a good first step. And this came out after the game as well:

Smart is the Celtics leader. He’s not the best player on the team, but he’s been in Boston the longest. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which people in New England love and identify with. When the team loses, his pain is real. When he speaks up like this, everyone else listens. No more excuses. It’s time to start winning.

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