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Officiating snafu masks Boston’s woeful play: 8 Takeaways from Celtics/Spurs

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Boston was well on their way to a loss before the officials made it all but a certainty

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

1. There are two stories of the game for the Celtics: The more prominent one that has come to the forefront was Kemba Walker getting ejected after some questionable officiating. That’ll get covered at the end of the Takeaways. The reason why? It’s not the real reason Boston lost.

Did the Walker fiasco come at the worst possible time for the Celtics during their comeback? Absolutely. But the point that seems to be getting missed is that the Celtics were having to come back in the first place. The officials didn’t allow the Spurs to shoot over 55% for the game. The officials didn’t cause the Celtics to throw it away 15 times in the game. And the officials didn’t cause Boston to miss multiple wide-open looks for the fourth game in a row. Maybe the Celtics would have completed the comeback and pulled of a miracle win. Maybe. But that’s no guarantee. What is guaranteed is that playing with poor effort for four consecutive games will come back to bite you eventually, and it has the last two times out for Boston.

2. This game was the second in a row where the Celtics never had the lead. They fell behind 22-3 before finally playing the Spurs about even the rest of the way. They never got behind by a huge margin against the Wizards, but the offense scored only 17 points in the first quarter. Against the Bulls, the Celtics allowed 28 first quarter points, including six three-pointers. And against the Hawks, they allowed 32 points in the first quarter, while scoring only 19.

Slow starts have been an issue for Boston this season. The last few years, the team would start well, but then struggle in the second quarter. This year, it seems to take them a bit to get going. The slow starts in four straight have also contributed to the Celtics falling behind by at least 11 points in each of those games. It’s hard enough to win in the NBA, even against bad teams. Doing it while digging out of a hole just isn’t sustainable, as the back-to-back losses have shown.

3. Boston’s offensive issue seems to come from one place: making open shots. That should correct itself. These misses are coming from good shooters. Once that evens out, the offense will be back to playing the way they have for most of the season.

The defense? That was a mess against San Antonio, and there are some concerning signs over the last week or so. These two plays stood out as particularly egregious. This first one involves poor defense from three good defenders in Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart.

Tatum doesn’t put any pressure on Dejounte Murray, who blows by him. Hayward’s help angle is as awkward as I’ve seen this year. He’s not taking away anything. And Smart, usually the best defender on the floor in any situation, is guarding…a ghost? This looks like a group that shot for teams before the game.

It’s easy to pick on Enes Kanter defensively. He’s an easy target. Even in the games where he’s played well, you can find some stuff to quibble with. This play stands out like a flashing red light:

Boston has made things easy on Kanter by asking him to play drop coverage. Boy, does he ever do that here. The screen is set at the edge of the center-court logo. By the time the screen is set, Kanter is already back-peddling inside the top of the key. Derrick White has more space here than there is between the Earth and the Moon. He can do whatever he wants. He pulls up for the easiest foul line jumper of his life, while a panicked Brad Wanamaker fouls him from behind. Drop coverage is what’s asked for of Kanter. Dropping to no-man’s land and guarding nothing but air is not.

Overall, Boston got slaughtered inside. San Antonio scored 50 points in the paint. A whopping 34 of them came in the first half. Many on plays like the above where the Celtics simply didn’t do enough to make it hard on the Spurs to create offense.

4. The handful of times Boston did play with effort, they made plays like this one. Jaylen Brown uses his quickness to stay in front of DeMar DeRozan and then his strength to snatch the ball away:

5. It wasn’t a great night for him overall, but Tatum did a nice job on this play of recognizing the 2-for-1 opportunity and getting to one of his spots for the jumper:

Considering Boston flubs the 2-for-1 on a fairly regular basis, this was a nice change of pace.

6. Tacko Fall got meaningful minutes for the first time in his career. Brad Stevens said postgame that he was looking for a spark when he inserted Fall in the second quarter. So, how did the big fella look? Mixed bag. The good news? Boston played San Antonio even during his first stint. Fall’s presence inside definitely ran the Spurs off a few shots in the paint. Unfortunately, the Celtics had to come out of their regular defense for a couple of reasons. One, Fall isn’t quick enough to switch on perimeter players. That got San Antonio a few open looks. Second, because of his limited time up with the big club, Fall isn’t as connected with his teammates as you need to be to execute the switch scheme.

However, more good news is that Stevens may have stumbled into something where Fall does work. It wasn’t a true zone, but Boston tweaked things where Fall hung back around the basket and just picked up the closest offensive player to the hoop. The other four defenders then switched around that. You can sort of see it here, as Fall picks up Rudy Gay and then Jakob Poeltl on this possession:

This won’t work against a team with a big who can step out and shoot it, but it might be something Stevens can go to at times.

7. Recently, we used this space to talk about Gordon Hayward working off the ball. He was at it against the Spurs once again. On this clip, Hayward catches Bryn Forbes watching the ball for a split-second and he’s gone:

Later in the same quarter, Hayward catches Forbes again:

This has become a regular thing for Hayward. He can get at least a bucket or two per game by working off the ball.

8. Alright, we’ve put it off long enough…

Did Kemba Walker flop? Yup. He embellished the contact. That’s standard operating procedure in the NBA. It doesn’t mean this wasn’t an illegal screen, which it was. LaMarcus Aldridge both fails to give Walker the one step the rules call for and also leans in and extends his arms as the screen is set.

But missed calls happen all the time. Did Walker deserve a technical for his actions? Probably. The pool report following the game indicated that Walker used profane language towards the official. That’s a technical every time.

But therein lies the problem. That should have been where it ended. The ref missed the call, Walker said his piece, got punished and we all move on. But, the official doubled-down and tossed him from the game. This was Walker’s first ejection of his career, which tells a story in and of itself. It’s an issue that NBA referees continue to inset themselves in places where they shouldn’t be a part of the story at all.

As stated to open the Takeaways, the officials weren’t the reason Boston lost. They were well on their way towards that result before this nonsense happened. Unfortunately, once again, the officials are now a major focus of the game versus most of what happened over the 48 minutes that actually ailed the Celtics. On to Philadelphia.