Even with home court advantage, the Celtics do not want to see LeBron James in the TD Garden for a game seven. Boston’s yet to lose a home game, at 9-0 this postseason. The road’s been a different story, and if their 1-5 lulls continue in Cleveland tonight they’ll be marching toward a scenario that James hasn’t lost in going back 10 years.
Why are these Celtics struggling immensely to win on the road?
It hasn’t been abject failure. Their game three win over the 76ers and attempted comeback in game four against the Bucks featured intense execution, aside from a sweep attempt to get Jaylen Brown the ball that ended up an isolation to Marcus Morris at the buzzer of the latter.
The offense falls off substantially, as the Celts receive exceptional offensive numbers at home and gravitate back toward the mean in other locations. The numbers drop across the board, excluding two cases that could be points of adjustment tonight for Brad Stevens.
An aggressive, assertive Horford marks Boston’s best performances this postseason, so it’s no surprise he’s averaging 12 shots and 60 percent efficiency through the Celtics’ nine home wins. On the road, the ball falls out of his hand and that throws their offense into a measurable tailspin.
Boston has only generated eight shots per game for Horford, which turned into four in 29 minutes in the Cavaliers’ blowout win on Saturday. In those limited moments, Horford’s efficiency maintains at a sturdy 50 percent from the field, but that’s not much offense coming out of a primary minutes eater especially when he’s only at 33 percent on three-pointers.
A road 3:2 assist-to-turnover ratio essentially grinds Horford to a non-factor on the offensive end. Horford’s 2.8 minutes on the ball dip to 2.3, a subtle drop but one that puts more pressure on Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart to make plays.
Rozier exploded onto the scoring scene for Boston into the playoffs by latching onto the three-point line, pulling up in massive volumes and converting at unimaginable rates. He still boasts a 45.5 percent split at home from three across nine games with over seven attempts per.
That rate falls out of the sky on the road, where Rozier only averages two less shots per game overall and dips to 24 percent. His gaudy 5.8:1.1 AST/TO ratio inches back to 4.8:1.7.
It’s hard to peg Boston’s road troubles on Rozier, the team’s third option at point guard, but since his meteoric rise propelled them into this position, any regression is bound to reign the team’s success in.
The Cavaliers targeted him by continuing to switch James his way on the offensive end, and sending swathes of defenders at him in the half court. Boston will need a viable road performance from Rozier to pull off a road win in this series.
We’ll grant credit where it’s due, because despite Brown’s worst performance of the playoffs landing in game three; five fouls, three turnovers, 3-for-8 shooting and -21 plus-minus, he’s maintained his percentages away from home better than his teammates.
Brown’s only a -31 away from home as opposed to a +76 at the Garden. Much of that can be attributed to his outlier in Cleveland.
He only dips from 18.6 points per game to 15.5, with a five percent slash in his field goal percentage from 50 to 45. While that isn’t helping Boston’s case, it’s typical road regression for a player his age.
The problem arises with his lack of playmaking at this point in his development. He’s only averaging one assist per game in limited ball time, so if the Celtics’ facilitators aren’t producing he won’t be helping much in that capacity. Opportunities come to him, rather than vice versa, and while that’s not something that will be solved this season the Celtics can be comfortable with his relative consistency.
Morris hopped into isolation sets, leaped to 2-for-8 from the field and admitted that his defense was not up to par for the Celtics in game three. After holding James outside the paint in the Boston games, he struggled to stay in front of him through screens in a 27 point, 12 assist masterpiece for the Cavs’ lifeblood.
Morris is -60, the worst among any player who has appeared in a game for the Celts this postseason, on the road. He ranks ninth in field goal percentage, despite 12 attempts per game, and that stat dips 11 points in his away contests.
Volume shooting and defense are two things we expected from Morris entering this series, the former is not going anywhere, as he’s still shooting 36 percent from three on the road.
The latter needs to catch up for this series as his defensive rating rests at 109.8 and his primary partner in guarding LeBron, Brown, sits just below 112. Nobody on this roster is talented enough offensively to warrant those floor numbers.
In one of his best games in a Celtics uniform, Smart didn’t turn the ball over once against Cleveland in a masterful nine-assist, hustle-filled game two win.
The following game, he threw the ball away in the lane multiple times across three turnovers and an empty offensive night follow with 2-for-9 shooting.
Smart’s home-road shot splits aren’t remarkable, because it’s been all bad since his return from hand surgery. We know the deal by now, even at 12 percent from three on the road he’s going to attempt four per game to at least draw gravity out there. But the rest of his game has to continue to make up for it and at a 108 defensive rating he’s not there in non-Garden games.
He’s boasting a 6:2 AST/TOV ratio that’s driving Boston’s offense at home. Much like game three in Cleveland, he has a turnover for every assist when he’s not playing at TD Garden. It’s currently 13 to 12.
If he isn’t taking care of the ball, shooting or holding down the defense it’s hard to argue for minutes, but somebody has to step up in the presence of the aforementioned struggles by Rozier and Horford.
The one shining hope on the road is ironically the rookie. Figure that one out, along with the rest of this season.
At 104 and 103 respectively, Brown and Tatum lead Boston in offensive rating in away games this postseason. The latter’s 19.8 PPG lead the team in those settings. With Horford and Aron Baynes, that trio with Tatum in the front court all shoot 50 percent.
While the house burned around him in game three, Tatum shot 6-for-10 finishing tough shots in traffic and getting to the line for eight free throw attempts. Nothing fazed him in Boston’s worst game of the postseason.
It’s hard to say what will facilitate more engagement, because the Celtics could probably use him taking every shot and spending every minute in the game. While that’s not possible, Stevens could opt to use him over Morris. The first substitution Stevens made in game three was taking Tatum out, and the rest was history.
Despite the supposed defensive liability, Tatum stripped James in game one and has length to make up for his thin frame. His 107 defensive rating on the road leads the team outside of Shane Larkin, who likely won’t return from a shoulder injury in this series.
The extra production on offense may make up for several lapses on defense, especially if he’s paired with Baynes on the help side.
Baynes is a +5 at home and -36 on the road for the Celts this postseason. His analytics don’t point toward him being the adjustment, though he likely will be by rejoining Horford in the starting lineup.
With a 50 percent three point shot and over seven rebounds per game, Baynes doesn’t have the split issues that other Celtics have comparing his home and road stats.
His net rating isn’t great across the board, the lineups with Horford were outscored by over 70 at one point, but his steady presence inside is likely needed in the opening minutes against Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson-grounded lineup.
Baynes is the only player on the Celtics whose numbers tick upward on the road in the playoffs, so despite the net ratings, he’s worth a shot in game four.