The Boston Celtics dropped another game on Saturday, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. A double-overtime affair with the Washington Wizards was anything but pretty, with the Wizards triumphing with a 115-112 victory. Jayson Tatum (27 points, 15 rebounds) and Jaylen Brown (34 points) were both sensational for stretches, carrying Boston on their backs to the finish line in an exhausting effort.
Speaking of effort, that’s been a topic of discussion amongst the Celtics early in the 2021-22 season. On Saturday, effort was rarely an issue, as those who logged heavy minutes gutted out a laudable amount of energy throughout.
Instead, Boston’s offense was marred by putrid 3-point shooting, finishing the day 2-26 from deep. Inside the arc, the Celtics got their way, mustering 25 free throw attempts (seven trips each for Tatum and Brown) and shooting 42-81 (52%) from two. The floor spacing was evident all night and sewed distrust between Boston’s stars and the supporting cast down the stretch. It’s hard to blame someone trying to be the hero when everyone else makes themselves the victim.
Still, Tatum and Brown forced shots late, as did Wizards backcourt tandem Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie. The game crawled to a snail’s pace in the final fifteen minutes not as much due to the absence of perimeter shooting but the constant ISO-ball both teams mustered.
Down 100-96 with two minutes to go, Boston went on a 7-2 run that helped them take the lead in the final minutes. That offensive spurt, as good of a burst as they had all night, came through numerous ball screens, dribble handoffs and actions to target Wizards big man Montrezl Harrell. A recipe for success that NBC Sports Boston’s announcer Brian Scalabrine was clamoring for all evening, the Celtics got deep paint touches or quality looks as a result of attacking Harrell.
Conspicuously, after the first two minutes of the first overtime, the Celtics stopped going with that same approach. Tatum primarily took over the offense, aiming to exploit mismatches that were in his favor. Others, he broke off advantages and strayed from the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra by moving away from Harrell out of a high pick-and-roll, going the opposite direction to an isolation. The Wizards were ready for Tatum’s go-to-moves in a late-game situation, doubling Tatum as soon as he put the ball on the floor and forcing a tough shot at the end of the clock.
Beal’s shot-making outdueled the Celtics over those final eight minutes to send the game to a second overtime and thrived in those final five minutes.
The fountain of youth seems to have hit Al Horford, though. The 36-year-old logged 41 minutes on Saturday, the most he’s played since the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. Horford had a trick-or-treat type of performance with his defense, buoying the Celtics to hold down a potent Wizards offense while also being exposed laterally in key moments.
Horford’s game is predicated on angles, length and mastering his positioning. While he won’t be a major offensive threat (eight points in 41 minutes isn’t exactly a standout performance), Horford earns minutes by playing sturdy defense and moving the ball at the right moments. He churned out 10 rebounds and six blocks against the Wiz, flying in from the weak side to protect the rim on numerous occasions:
Since taking over as head coach, Ime Udoka has seemed determined to impart a “switch everything” scheme in Boston to mixed results. Such a drastic change can lead to some communication breakdowns and takes a while to master. The veteran Horford is one of the few bigs in the league who can fit into such a scheme.
Still, the Celtics (and Horford) are feeling their way through when to switch. A few screens, re-screens or staredowns with Beal left the Celtics exposed and unsure of the right times to switch, or whether they should. In one key moment in the fourth quarter, that failure to communicate resulted in an open pull-up trey for Beal:
Horford had several moments where his switching was a positive for the Celts. When spry and ready to accept the switch, he could patrol the paint and contest pull-ups. One fourth quarter on-ball block against Spencer Dinwiddie was his best moment of the night.
For every positive moment Horford had on a switch, he’d find one to give the Wizards quality looks. Dinwiddie, in particular, was licking his chops against Horford the same way Boston was eyeing up Harrell. Dinwiddie’s expert change of pace and acceleration off the bounce gave him a half-step on the elder Celtic.
By drawing contact or using his body to cut off recovery lanes for Horford, Dinwiddie was able to score multiple times at the rim when switched onto by Big Al:
The efforts of Horford on both ends, plus the constant attacking and scoring on the interior, helped the Celtics overcome the poor shooting and put them in a position to win.
Late-game execution isn’t as simplistic or easy as fans want it to seem. The numbers game of fouling vs. not fouling, taking a 3-pointer vs. a contested two, are situationally driven and reliant on judgment of the situation. We saw that judgment come back to bite the Celts on the final possession of the game, where an off-balance Tatum kicked to Dennis Schroder on the perimeter.
With the remaining time on the clock, the Celtics didn’t need to hoist a trey despite being down three points. Instead of attacking the rim for a quick two or swinging the ball for a teammate 3-pointer, Schroder dribbled and reset, flustering the Celtics to the point where Jaylen had no choice but to hoist a late-clock prayer that got suffocated before it was launched:
Poor shot-making and stars going cold at the wrong moments hurt their efforts on Saturday. There are positives to be found in their performance, including a much greater game from Josh Richardson than we’d seen since he put on the green and white. There’s also the simple fact they took a game to double overtime while only making two 3-pointers and missing two starters.