Instead of normal Takeaways with clips and the like, we’re going to cover five reasons the Boston Celtics fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers, with an overall thought at the end. Please note that these are in no particular order, as the feeling in this space is that all equally contributed to the loss.
1. Late-game offense: The Celtics built a nice lead by featuring an offense that vacillated between ball and player movement and one that attacked mismatches off of switches. Early in the game, Boston was using the drive-and-kick game extensively. There was also a lot of ball movement around the perimeter off paint attacks, as well as good player movement off-ball.
The other offense the Celtics used extensively was straight screens to force mismatches. As he did against the Milwaukee Bucks, Dennis Schroder would draw the big (in this case Jarrett Allen or Evan Mobley), while everyone else spread the floor. This allowed Schroder to beat the big off the bounce for scoring opportunities for himself, or to make passes to open teammates.
The second half started in a similar fashion. After the bench blew most of a big lead (more on that in a minute), the Celtics starters fell back into their bad habits. Schroder and Jayson Tatum began walking the ball up the floor. This let Cleveland set their defense. If slowing the game down was all they did, it would be one thing, but what happened in addition made it even worse.
Tatum regularly works out of isolation late in games. Regularly, it doesn’t really end up good things. Too often he takes contested step-back jumpers or makes wild drives into the defense that have no chance. We know this sad story all too well by now.
Schroder was just as egregious in this game, but in a different way. When Tatum gets the ball, everyone clears out and hopes for the best. When Schroder had it throughout the end of the game, multiple teammates were coming up to set picks for him. Instead of using the screen to draw the mismatch, Schroder waved his teammates off, preferring to go straight into one-on-one actions.
This late-game “do it myself” stuff has to go. How the Celtics can’t see they build a lead one way and lose it the other way is baffling. If this isn’t corrected, expect to continue to see a fair share of late-game losses for Boston.
2. Ime Udoka’s lineups: In the first half, Ime Udoka looked like a genius. Playing without three rotation players, Udoka inserted Jabari Parker, Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith in the game alongside Grant Williams (normally a bench player) and Romeo Langford. At first glance, you can’t blame anyone for thinking “This isn’t going to go well.”
And then it did!
Bridging the first and second quarters, that group held their own defensively and managed to outscore the Cavs 11-9 before any starters came back in. A two-point margin isn’t anything amazing, but to be that deep into your bench, it’s more than acceptable.
As any coach would, Udoka went back to the well. With 3:05 left in the third period and Boston leading 72-53, the all-reserve group took the floor again. It started off ok, as Grant Williams answered Cavs three-pointer to put Boston up 74-56 with 2:23 to play in the third.
It would be 6:47 of game-time before Boston would score again.
All in all, the reserve group was outscored 6-0 to end the third quarter, which put Cleveland within striking distance entering the final period. Dennis Schroder started the fourth quarter, but after two missed shots and two turnovers, Udoka went back to Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart too.
It was too late. Udoka finally took a timeout when Parker fouled Cedi Osman to give Cleveland a chance to cut it to a one-possession game. At that point, all momentum had shifted. The Cavs didn’t just have hope. They had belief.
3. Lack of depth: Any NBA team is going to be in trouble if they are missing two starters and one of their top reserves. No one has the depth to remove one-third of the rotation without missing a beat.
That said, the Celtics depth is particularly poor right now. Schroder is fine to step in and start. Grant Williams more or less holds his own most nights. The rest are a mix of young players still figuring it out (Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard) or veteran castoffs that were available for a reason (Jabari Parker, Juancho Hernangomez, Enes Kanter).
When one of the kids, usually Langford or Nesmith, is the ninth-man it’s fine. Boston has enough firepower in the top-eight to support their mistakes. When multiple young players have to play 15-30 minutes, things get messy.
Things get even messier when Ime Udoka has to call upon one of the vets. Jabari Parker came into this game ready to get shots off after not playing for a couple of weeks. That energy was great…for about five minutes. Then, it all unraveled.
4. Late-game rebounding: This one is going to be short and sweet. In every loss Boston has had, outside of the Toronto and Chicago debacles, the inability to secure defensive rebounds late in the game has killed them.
The Celtics tend to go small, as does every team, late in games. That means all five guys need to be on the boards. Too often, Boston assumes Robert Williams or Al Horford will take care of things. The guards, most often Marcus Smart and Dennis Schroder, regularly do a very poor job of blocking out. The wings, usually Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, love to leak out after contesting shots.
If the Celtics are going to play small late in games, and they probably should quite often, they have to figure out a way to finish possessions with rebounds.
5. Jayson Tatum: In his rookie year, Jayson Tatum was on fire right from the jump. Every subsequent season, he’s started slow. Then, just as the calendar flips to a new year, Tatum usually goes crazy.
This season, that slow start has been glacial, both in terms of pace and being ice-cold. Tatum can’t consistently make any kind of shot right now. His step-back three-pointer is missing. His finishing at the rim is the worst it’s ever been. Tatum is even missing free throws. His passing is still a developing skill, and a couple of late turnovers really hurt in this one.
It’s not fair to put all the losses on Tatum. But he’s the Celtics franchise player or co-franchise player with Jaylen Brown, depending on how you view things. When things go poorly, the best players have to shoulder a lot of the blame.
6. Are the Celtics close? No, we’re not going to use this space to try and convince you that blowing a 19-point second half lead isn’t awful. It is.
On one hand, the Celtics have suffered a season’s worth of close losses in this opening month. Boston isn’t miles away from being a good team.
On the other hand, it’s the same story over and over again.
Like a formulaic fantasy story, the scrappy underdog rebels fall behind and all looks lost. Then after one ray of hope inspires them, the heroes come back and emerge victorious over the once-unbeatable horde.
The Celtics aren’t the heroes in this story right now. They can be, but they aren’t. Until they figure out how to be those scrappy rebels, they’ll be sitting on the other side of games like this.