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Lineup changes weren’t enough to avoid another loss and 10 other takeaways from Celtics/Hornets

New lineup for Boston, same old late-game issues

NBA: Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

1. Despite saying there were no lineup changes coming earlier in the day, Brad Stevens did switch things up by inserting Aron Baynes into the opening unit and bringing Gordon Hayward off the bench. It’s hard to get much of a read on how much this changed things, as Baynes only played 7:22 and Hayward played nearly 31 minutes, but this is a change Boston should stick with for at least a couple more games.

2. One benefit of starting Baynes is that it forced Charlotte to defend Al Horford with Marvin Williams instead of Cody Zeller. While Zeller isn’t a great defender, Horford was able to take advantage of his size against Williams easier than he would have been against Zeller. Unfortunately, this isn’t something Boston stuck with, as the substitution pattern put Horford back at the five more than he was at the four. When Horford plays center, he’s out on the perimeter. When he’s the power forward, he’s able to hang around the post. That’s something the Celtics need more of.

3. Marcus Smart is a terrific defender, both on and off ball. He controls the Celtics defense much like a free safety or linebacker does for an NFL team. But sometimes that approach catches him. On this play, he drops off Kemba Walker by somewhat needlessly switching. Then Smart just kind of hangs out in the middle of the paint, allow Miles Bridges to get a wide open layup. This “free safety” approach hasn’t worked very often for Boston this season and certain didn’t work last night.

4. Stevens talked a lot after the loss to the Utah Jazz about the team needing to be tougher. By starting Baynes, it seemed like that was a concerted effort to make that happen. Then Daniel Theis played more minutes than usual. But Stevens didn’t stick with it. Theis played one of his best games of the season, but got just 16 minutes. Baynes barely played. Semi Ojeleye, one of the toughest guys on the team, was a DNP-CD. It’s fine to ask for more toughness, but when given the opportunity to do something about it, Stevens left things lacking.

5. Speaking of Theis, he was great. He’s far more athletic than Baynes is, which makes him a different type of cover for the defense. Against Willy Hernangomez and Zeller, Theis was able to use his athleticism to slip screens and get some easy buckets, like he did here:

6. This was one of the first games where Smart and Terry Rozier were able to team up to be terrors on defense. Most backup guards, and even some starters, just aren’t equipped to deal with the kind of ball-pressure these two can provide. Smart battles through screens to pressure Walker, while Rozier uses his catch-up speed to pick off the pass for an easy dunk the other way. This was a staple of the second unit last year and Boston could use a lot more of it.

7. The above play was an example of a stat that the Celtics dominated in: fastbreak/transition points. Boston outscored Charlotte 22-6 for the game in that area. For a team that is struggling offensively, that is creating a lot of easy offense. One challenge? Only two of those 22 points came in the fourth quarter. It’s not easy to keep running deep into games, but it’s a place where the Celtics should be able to use their depth to make the game easier on themselves.

8. While it’s easy to be critical of Stevens play designs, and his players’ execution of those plays, it’s good to point out when they do it well. This play starts with Horford intentionally setting a somewhat sloppy screen to get Kyrie Irving going downhill. Zeller steps up to help. Rather than roll to the rim or pop to the arc, Horford immediately screens Jayson Tatum’s man. With both Walker and Zeller occupied with Irving, these leaves Tatum wide open for a jumper. This is really good play design and execution.

9. It was somewhat baffling that Jaylen Brown didn’t play more. Brown played only 19 minutes, easily the fewest he’s played this year. That would make sense if he was struggling, as he has for most of the season. But Brown was turning in one of his better efforts, making it a questionable decision on Stevens’ part. One example of Brown’s strong play was his aggression to get to the rim. On this play he uses both his speed and strength to completely overpower Jeremy Lamb for an easy layup:

10. The Celtics ball movement had moments of brilliance (31 assists on 45 baskets!) and moments of ineptitude (largely late in the game). Last season, because they didn’t have a guy like Irving to rely on, Boston relentlessly hunted mismatches and the best shot possible. They would turn down good shots to create great ones. This year, they’ve been occasionally incredibly unselfish. On this play, Smart gives it up to Brown for the layup, but the context is important to note. Smart had just come up with a great steal, and at the time he was 3-for-3 from behind the arc. This is when you know a heat-check is coming. Smart catches and hesitates for a split-second. You can tell he wants to shoot. But Smart sees Brown has Zeller on him and Zeller is already leaning the wrong way. One quick pass and Brown has an easy layup.

On the other hand, you have a handful of plays in the second half where the ball got sticky. That makes Boston very easy to guard. This largely comes when Marcus Morris and Rozier are in the game together. Both are score-first players. Both have had moments where the Celtics would have lost without them, but that doesn’t excuse some of the over-dribbling they each do. It’s up to Stevens to figure out a way to split them up as much as possible. Teams can survive with one ball-dominant player on the floor at a time. Two makes it really tough to get the kind of ball movement you need to succeed.

11. Stevens said post-game “Tonight we saw more of what we want to be.” And that is true. There were a lot of good things from this game. But there were some things that weren’t great. And they are continuous issues from the start of the season. The three most glaring are:

a. Being in the bonus for the final 5:55 of the game and getting just six free throws. The Celtics were going to the rim a lot for most of the night, but returned back to settling for jumpers late in the game.

b. Allowing eight offensive rebounds for the game isn’t so bad. Allowing three late in the fourth quarter is. Especially when the team couldn’t contain Kemba Walker as it was. Giving him second chances was death.

c. And Walker…to some extent you throw your hands up. As Stevens said it was a “special night”. The problem is that these special nights are happening far too often early in the season. Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Vucevic, Jamal Murray, Joe Ingles and now Walker have all had big nights against the Celtics.

The style of defense Boston plays is great for 90 percent of the NBA. When they switch everything, there aren’t a lot of guys who can take advantage of mismatches and beat them. But for the 10 percent who can, it doesn’t work. Walker carved up Boston because he destroyed the switches. When the “switch everything” approach isn’t working, it’s up to Stevens to adjust. Throw a double or trap at the ballhandler to force someone else to beat you. Time and time again, the Celtics stick with what they’ve always done and it’s not working. Something has to change.

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