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Old issues back again: 10 Takeaways from Celtics/Pacers

Boston struggled in the third quarter and couldn’t close in a tight loss at Indiana

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

1. This game started out about as good as the Celtics could have hoped for. The defense was locked in and getting stops, as well as the resulting rebounds. On offense, the ball and player movement were excellent. That starts with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum being playmakers.

Brown continues to look good working in the pick-and-roll game. This is a nice play because he doesn’t force a drive or take a contested leaner. He kicks to Smart for the wide-open corner three:

On this play, Tatum works off a screen. He gets to the free throw line and has the attention of the defense on him. What’s really nice is that Tatum and Smart both read Aaron Holiday the same way. He turns his head to look at Tatum driving, and Smart relocates to the corner. Tatum hits the pass perfectly for the open triple:

2. In the third quarter, the ball and player movement again started off pretty good. The challenge was for each nice pass Brown or Tatum made, the shots were clanked off the rim. Time and time again, they would make the right read and the shot would miss. This is where frustration settles in and the two stars take it upon themselves to do everything.

Poor play to open the second half is also a consistent issue. For years, Boston has struggled in the third quarter. When asked about it after the game, Brad Stevens said he wasn’t really sure what it meant that the issue has been present for “a long time”. Stevens referenced fourth quarter issues instead and didn’t really answer the question.

3. As referenced above, Boston has to find a way to make shots when Brown and Tatum are acting as playmakers. That may mean changes to the rotation. In particular, it may already be time to insert Aaron Nesmith for Semi Ojeleye.

Normally, Ojeleye functions as a wing/big swing player. Right now, he’s playing purely as a wing. And he’s had good moments, but there is little upside there. Ojeleye is a known quantity at this point. Nesmith will probably be rocky as a defender early on, but it’s probably worth playing through to get his shooting on the floor. If he’s so bad on defense, then he gets pulled out.

Mostly, this is really about Brown and Tatum having faith that when they give the ball up, something good will happen. Nesmith should bring that as a shooter, any defensive issues aside.

4. Speaking of the rotation, Stevens has gone back to relying on two bigs on the floor at the same time. This was something Boston had success with when they had Al Horford and Aron Baynes. It’s been a mixed bag thus far this season.

If two bigs are going to play, there are 96 minutes of “big” minutes available. Against the Pacers, the Celtics went big for 82 of those minutes. In general, it was fine. Tristan Thompson was good. Robert Williams was terrific. (More on him in a minute!) And Daniel Theis was solid, but in just 15 minutes of play.

What wasn’t good were the 23 minutes Grant Williams played, which were the most of any big. He had a really tough night. This is where +/- can be a funky stat. Anyone who watched saw Grant Williams struggle, while Robert Williams excelled. Yet, Grant was a +3, while Time Lord was a -4.

5. It doesn’t seem hyperbolic to say this was the best game Robert Williams has played in his short career. He was everywhere in the second half. This huge follow dunk got him going. No other Celtics big man can make this play with the ease Williams does:

This one is great play recognition from Williams. Ball-you-man in transition. He reads the pass for the easy steal and dunk:

Jayson Tatum misses this shot, but Williams has this ball in his hands for a nanosecond. He knew exactly where Tatum was relocating to as Teague drove. This is high-level passing from a big man:

And, of course, he had the huge steal late. This is good stuff because he defends the pass, then comes in on the sideline side of T.J. Warren for the trap and strip. And then Williams knows enough to let Marcus Smart corral the ball for the breakaway layup:

6. The other Williams had a rough night. Grant Williams is an undersized player, who relies on his smarts and toughness to get by. That means when he makes dumb plays, they stand out so much more.

The Domantas Sabonis’ game-winner is getting all the attention, but this was Grant’s worst mistake on defense. Malcolm Brogdon had been killing Boston all game. Smart is clearly sticking with Sabonis off the screen. Why is Williams hanging back so far? He doesn’t do anything here to make this tough on anyone. Just caught watching from no-man’s land:

On the Sabonis’ game-winner, Robert Williams took all the blame. He said he blew the coverage and that it offset anything positive he did all game. This screams Time Lord taking the bullet for a teammate. Boston always switches these actions. You can see Robert Williams moving up to take away Justin Holiday. Grant Williams just sort of gets stuck on Sabonis’ right hip. That opens up the easy driving lane for the left-handed big man:

If anything, Robert Williams did a nice job recognizing the blown switch and recovering to challenge the shot at the rim. And it’s good to see the young man step up as a leader and take the blame postgame, even if it seems unwarranted.

7. That last basket was the final blow of an endemic issue for the Celtics: interior defense. The Pacers scored 108 points. They were just 7-of-26 from behind the arc, and they only had 15 free throw attempts, making 11 of them. That’s a total of 32 points. Of the remaining 76 points, Indiana scored a whopping 60 of them in the paint. That includes 24-of-34 shooting at the rim.

That’s a losing formula. Boston continues to defend the arc fairly well, as they always do. But if you allow a team to bully their way to 60 points in the paint on 70% shooting at the basket, you’re probably going to lose. This is where Stevens may need to lean on the bulk of Tristan Thompson more, along with the shot-blocking of Daniel Theis and Robert Williams.

8. Last game, this space picked on Payton Pritchard a bit. Credit where credit is due: Pritchard was very good in this game. He makes up for his lack of size on offense by having incredibly deep range. On defense, he’s best described as a pain in the ass. He’s constantly up into guys. He can get taken advantage of off switches, but he’s tough in every other way. Now, just learn the court boundaries! Five turnovers in three games by stepping out of bounds would be comical if it wasn’t so sad.

9. In the season-opener, Jayson Tatum played the hero. He played the goat against the Pacers:

After the game, Brad Stevens said the Celtics were looking for something else as an initial action, but that the Pacers denied it. Stevens later said the shot Tatum took was a tough one. For his part, Tatum said he should have drove the ball and put the loss completely on his shoulders.

It’s hard, because this is a good shot for Tatum. He makes it regularly. On the other hand, he’s not being defended by the reigning Defensive Player of the Year this time. There was enough time to make something happen to maybe get a better look.

It’s also easy to forget that Tatum is still growing into this role. It’s really only the start of Year Two of being “The Man” late in games. And even that’s a tough descriptor because it’s a role he shares with Kemba Walker when Walker is healthy.

10. The Celtics are saying all the right things after the last two losses. It’s early in the season and not time to overreact. At the same time, they see the issues and know they need to be corrected. And the young players are taking ownership of the situation. Growing pains are just that: painful. That’s where this team is right now.

Tuesday’s game against these same Pacers in Indiana feels sort of big for psyche and morale. 2-2 after a tough four-game stretch to open the season is a fine outcome. 1-3 isn’t a disaster, but will painted as if it is. Such is life with high expectations.

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