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The anatomy of blowing a lead and game: 9 takeaways from Celtics/Hornets

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Boston blew an 18-point lead in less than eight minutes

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

1. Well…this one will go down as one of the worst losses of the season for the Celtics. And that list seems to be ever-growing too. Up 112-94 with 8:21 to play, Boston was outscored 30-5 down the stretch and lost their third straight game.

Read that again, but in pieces:

Up 18 points with less than nine minutes to play.

Gave up 30 points in less than nine minutes. Really this happened in less than eight minutes, because the Hornets didn’t score next until there was just 7:43 left on the clock.

Scored just five points over the game’s final eight plus minutes.

Sigh. Let’s get into it.

2. Boston’s defense was awful late in the game. You can make excuses about missing Al Horford and Marcus Smart playing with five fouls if you want, but they would just be excuses. Boston offered very little in the way of resistance at the rim. They left shooters wide open on the perimeter. And when the Hornets did miss, they grabbed a couple of their own rebounds in the fourth quarter, which continued a trend from the game overall. For the game as a whole, Charlotte outscored Boston 24-2 in second chance points, which is a ridiculous margin that should never happen.

3. They say if you don’t learn from your history, you’re doomed to repeat it. Back in November, the Celtics lost a game where Kemba Walker went crazy in the fourth quarter. He scored 21 points that night, as Charlotte came from behind to beat Boston 117-112. Following the game, multiple Celtics were critical of the decision to play Walker straight-up and not send any doubles or traps at him to force him to give the ball up.

What happened Saturday night? A very similar result. Walker scored 18 points and carried the Hornets to a come from behind victory. Following the game, Kyrie Irving said: “We should have probably trapped him a little bit more like every other team does in the league. He torches us every time. It’s no surprise.”

Irving has had a lot to say following Boston losses this season. Sometimes his comments seem a little off the mark. Not this way. This is pointed, valid and correct criticism of late-game strategy that has now burned the Celtics twice in the same season.

4. Brad Stevens has taken a lot of heat this year. Some of it has felt unwarranted, but some is definitely on the mark. From this game, you can rip him for not changing the defense against Walker. You can question rotation decision if you want, but they were generally fine.

What about not taking timeouts? Stevens likes to take the old school approach of letting his players figure it out and play through runs by the other team. He hoards his timeouts for late-game situations. Last night was a weird dichotomy of Stevens using timeouts to try and stop the Hornets surge, yet not calling one when the Celtics needed it most.

Twice during the run, Stevens took timeouts. There was also an automatic Hornets timeout in there. So, three times Stevens let the clock stop and gave the Celtics a chance to regroup. That’s good.

What’s not good is what happened on Boston’s last real chance in the game. Down 120-117, coming off one of the aforementioned timeouts, Irving missed a three-pointer, followed by Marcus Morris missing a tip-in. Charlotte raced the other way, but turned it over with 23 seconds left. In this situation, trailing on the road, conventional wisdom is to go quickly. If that results in a two-point basket, you play the foul game. If you get a good look at a three-pointer, you take that. The Celtics got neither.

Terry Rozier attacked the basket initially, but the Hornets cut him off. He then circled back out. It was right there that Stevens should have used his final timeout. The quick two didn’t happen, so Boston was going to have to take a three to tie it. That’s when you call a timeout and run a play to get a good look. Instead, Rozier took a turnaround three-pointer with a hand in his face and that was the ball game.

5. But it’s not all on Stevens. A lot gets screamed postgame asking “Why didn’t the Celtics run anything? It was all ISO ball!” That sort of criticism is a little unfair. It’s virtually impossible to know when there is no play called versus the players ignoring it and choosing to do it themselves. In most cases, you’ll find out later that it was on the players. In the case of Boston, Stevens isn’t a rigid taskmaster who calls sets on every trip. The Celtics offense is a “read and react” system. It gives the players freedom to make plays based on what they see. This is part of why Stevens has the reputation of being a coach that guys want to play for.

In this case, the players made the wrong decisions. Boston took way too many quick shots in the fourth quarter. And a lot of those shots came on plays where the ball didn’t move. And the few sets the Celtics did run ended poorly. Marcus Smart got the ball in good scoring position in the paint twice and committed offensive fouls on both plays. Jayson Tatum got two good looks off set plays and missed both times. The play where Rozier ended up taking the wild three-pointer was a solid design for a quick two, but well-defended by the Hornets.

6. To build on the above point: Boston had 31 assists on 44 baskets. That’s great ball movement. The downside? Only four of those assists came in the fourth quarter, and only one over the last 8:21 of the game.

Boston shot just 2-of-20 down the stretch as they unraveled and blew the lead. The makes were a Jaylen Brown three-pointer (this was the one assisted shot over the final 8:21) and an Irving layup. That’s it. Of the 18 misses, 12 came off shots were no assist would have been credited. That’s playing hero-ball at its worst.

7. The unfortunate part of this loss is that it threw away two really great performances for most of the game from Irving and Brown. Irving scored 31 points to go along with seven rebounds and six assists. Brown tallied 29 points off the bench, continuing his string of good to great games. Even Rozier, despite the questionable shot late, played another strong game with 12 points off the pine. And rookie big man Robert Williams got the start and comported himself well, before leaving the game with a back contusion following a scary fall late in the second quarter.

8. Let’s take a brief moment to recognize how much Jayson Tatum is struggling right now. He was just 5-of-17 from the floor in this game and 2-of-7 in the fourth quarter. He’s really having hard time getting his jumper to fall, and his offensive game isn’t developed enough yet to consistently play through those struggles. Many have harped on the need to move Brown back into the starting five, with most suggesting he replace Marcus Morris. Maybe it’s time to re-think part of that. Perhaps Brown should start again, but it’s Tatum who should head to the bench for a bit. Only Stevens knows how this could impact the head-space of his second-year forward, but it’s something to at least consider.

9. If anything, this loss shows just how important Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and Aron Baynes are to the Celtics. Starting with Baynes: the loss exposed Boston’s big man depth. Baynes is a steady, reliable presence when he plays. He’s needed for interior defense and the willingness to give a hard foul when one should be given. The other Boston bigs just don’t give them that sort of play.

Horford and Hayward are the grownups on the roster. Their presence helps keep everyone calm and keeps things moving. As things fell apart for Boston, you could feel how much both players were missed, especially Horford. There was no one to gather the troops, demand a touch on the block and create a good shot.

It’s no excuse, as the Celtics blew this game in spectacular fashion. But it should end any and all speculation that Boston is better without some guys in the lineup. They need the whole roster playing together as a team to get the results everyone expects.