For the latest installment in the summer film series here at CelticsBlog, we’re not interested in an example of the Celtics at their best. We’ve all seen plenty of those. Instead, today we’re going to be looking into a play I came across while pouring over some late-season tape of the Celtics sans-Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart. It’s something of an awkward basketball work of art, and I was interested to see what we could learn from it. After all, as my Google search for “inspirational quotes about failure” told me, Oprah Winfrey once said, “failure is another stepping stone to greatness.”
The game in question, of course, is the Celtics’ 112-106 loss to the lowly Atlanta Hawks in Game #80, coming at the peak of the Hospital Celtics’ injury woes — well after Irving was shut down for the season, Smart tore a tendon in his thumb and Daniel Theis tore his meniscus. With Marcus Morris sitting for rest, the Celtics trotted out only eight players from the regular rotation, and found a combined 35 minutes for Jabari Bird, Abdel Nader and Jonathan Gibson.
There may not be a play that better exemplifies the Celtics’ late-season offensive malaise than this. There are the makings of some kind of offensive set, opening with a staggered double screen for a driving Rozier, but nothing seems to develop afterwards, and the Hawks’ defense definitely doesn’t seem too concerned. Taurean Prince had himself a night, torching a sluggish Celtics’ defense for 33 points on 70% shooting from the field, but perhaps none of his buckets would come easier than his breakaway dunk.
Let’s take a look at a few key moments that might show us how things went so very, very wrong.
Yes, Greg Monroe did indeed set a screen on his own teammate, Rozier. Talk about an appropriately goofy bit of foreshadowing for this particular possession. Hawks guard Isaiah Taylor is already well behind the play after being completely mashed by Al Horford, so I’m not really sure what Monroe thought he was accomplishing here. Rozier hesitates a little bit after turning the corner, and I wonder if he may have intended to pull-up for a jumper there originally.
Monroe proved to be an awkward fit in the front court rotation last season due to his lack of versatility, and you can see why here; while Horford slips out behind the three-point arc after his screen, Monroe can’t do the same (at least not convincingly) because no defender going to be particularly scared of his range.
Instead, he just sort of hovers around the elbow around the spot of the initial screen, watching Taylor dart past him and allowing Mike Muscala to further crowd the paint. Monroe had a few nice outings during his half-season in green — in fact, he scored 17 on 7-of-8 shooting in this particular game — but coupled with his obvious defensive weaknesses, plays like these would contribute to keeping him out of the playoff rotation.
As for Rozier’s side of this exchange, I believe I’ve pinpointed the exact moment when he realized he’d made a huge mistake.
I recently took a look at Rozier’s relative struggles to adapt to a true point guard role in the absence of Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart, and this is a good example. Rozier likes to push the tempo, stay active, and force the issue — good attributes, generally, but he sometimes needs to find a lower gear. In this instance, he doesn’t seem to have much of a plan beyond “attack!” and quickly cuts himself off from the rest of the offense.
After his brief hesitation and a small fumble of the ball, Rozier finds himself in something of a human prison. With Taylor on his hip, Tyler Dorsey to his left, and Miles Plumlee directly in front of him, there’s no real bail-out option available — he can’t get to the rim and all his passing lanes are functionally closed. This is often when we’d see Kyrie Irving go into “dribble around until something happens” mode, as he often did earlier in the year, but Rozier doesn’t necessarily have those kinds of handles or improvisational prowess. He doesn’t appear to see Ojeleye in the opposite corner — which would have been a difficult pass to begin with — and opts for the prayer lob to Horford at the top of the key.
Al Horford’s “aww, dangit” clap as Prince takes it the other way sums things up nicely.
In the end, this is mostly just a bad play from a shorthanded team with little to play for in the closing days of the regular season. No player on the court besides Rozier moves more than a few feet in any direction the entire duration of the play, making the Hawks’ defense’s job that much easier. While the Celtics actually shot pretty well for the game as a whole — 51% from the field, 39% from three — they allowed the Hawks to shoot even better, including a whopping 15 made threes, and showed a general disinterest on both ends of the court that we didn’t often see throughout the year. It was the basketball equivalent of sleepwalking.
The obvious silver lining is that (fingers crossed) the 2018-19 Celtics aren’t likely to find themselves this extremely undermanned. The return of Gordon Hayward and a general trend of better health among the rest of the roster should keep this team well-stocked on playmakers who will keep the offense humming nicely. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, though, and even a full-strength Boston squad will be due for some silly moments. When that happens, there will undoubtedly be some lessons to learn from and, perhaps more importantly, plenty of fun to be had, as well.