It's easy to point to the poor shooting as an excuse for the Boston Celtics losing yet another game, and in part, that line of thinking is fair. Lids were indeed on baskets for large stretches of the contest against the San Antonio Spurs, but even the heaviest of objects can be displaced with the right approach.
In what's becoming par for the course with this Celtics team, their offensive issues don't stem from shots not dropping. That's a byproduct of a much larger problem. In truth, it's their rudimentary approach to offensive possessions, lackluster execution, and an egotistical reliance on isolation play that's hindering their growth as a unit.
"It's a collective. We have to hold each other to that standard, that highest accountability standard. Where each one of us, where you see a person who may not be locked in that night or may not be playing with that intensity, you call them out on it. And that's the next step, understanding that nothing on the court is personal.
We're here to be the best team we can be. Best team. And that takes all of us, it's not one person, and it's never going to be one person, it's gonna be the collective, and we're going to do this together, and that's the step we have to take moving forward," Grant Williams said following a game that was riddled with isolation possessions.
Any team with star players will have moments when the ball sticks en route to a tough shot. It's part and parcel of the game at the NBA level. But the key is to know when those moments are necessary and when a more democratic approach is required, and here we are, beating the same drum that we've been beating for the past 18 months.
There are 15 players on an NBA roster. Not all of them will get game time, and even fewer will have opportunities to impact the game on the offensive end, but running sets for the same three or four guys consistently is too easy to defend.
Herein lies the first flaw in the Celtics’ approach against the Spurs: rudimentary offense. Drive and kick will always be a valuable tool in an offense’s playbook and will likely play a significant role on a game-to-game basis. Still, how you get into those drive and kick actions is what separates the professionals from the hobbyists.
Currently, the Celtics offense consists of drag screens, stagger screens, a sprinkling of Spain pick-and-rolls, hammer screens, and the occasional flex set. The most common "formation" the Celtics use is "wide," which is part of a standard five-out series aimed at stretching the defense to generate space in the middle and towards the rim. All of these offensive movements and sets are primarily predicated on attacking from above the break, getting into the paint, and then re-directing the rock out to an open corner shooter after the help defense commits.
But what good is running the occasional screening play if only two guys are moving? Why did Brad Stevens piece together a roster of interchangeable parts if the offense refuses to play to each other's strengths?
In this clip, there are two moments where actions could have occurred that have been annotated into the film to highlight the disparity in off-ball movement for the Celtics. It’s become the rule, not the exception. With so much offensive capability within the roster, the team's unwillingness to work for each other hinders their potential as a unit. Now, this isn't a new phenomenon for the Celtics, the same problems blighted the final year and a half of Brad Stevens' coaching tenure, and it seems the Ime Udoka is finding the same issues are deeply rooted within the roster.
"Lack of energy and anything offensively, we knew they were a team that switches everything, and we just held the ball and tried to do it by ourselves. No ball movement, no penetration for your teammates. And in the second quarter, third quarter, and the fourth it was night and day from that. We talk about teams that switch everything. It's not always for you; get your teammates involved, show them clips at halftime of when we did it a few times in the first half. And they carried that into the second half, so we came out and looked like everybody is taking turns, trying to get baskets. Obviously, slow, sluggish, and stagnant. We talked about it at halftime. It wasn't really defensively, they had 52 points, but we were just shooting so poorly that even the open looks we missed. But it was a lot of isolation one-on-one instead of movement," Udoka detailed after the Celtics failed to play as a unit for their second game in a row.
The second issue the Celtics faced against the Spurs was a lack of execution, which in part goes hand-in-hand with their rudimentary offense, but was also on show with how many attempts the team missed at the rim. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Celtics shot an appalling 50% at the rim, with many of their looks being too strong or too contested.
Of course, the Spurs are a well-coached team and will make adjustments on the fly to limit looks that teams are finding success with or are getting repeated attempts. So, when San Antonio decided to pack the paint, the Celtics were far too quick to settle for low-quality jump shots. Furthermore, in the below clip, the shot can be considered a quality look, but only due to the lack of effort from the four Celtic players who make little-to-no effort to get open off-ball, leaving Brown to take a mid-range jumper despite the team being cold from all over the court.
The final issue with how the Celtics decided to approach yesterday's game? Egocentric isolation basketball. Sure, Jayson Tatum got hot in the third and almost willed the team to a victory, and while that's exciting to witness, it's not a recipe for sustainable success for Tatum as an individual or the Celtics as a franchise. Then there were Dennis Schroder's moments, where he favored mid-range jumpers over the drive-and-kick game that had gotten the Celtics onto a good run of form in recent weeks. And finally, Brown's unwillingness to match his shooting ability (he was the only guy who looked like he could make something happen early on) with aggressiveness.
It often feels like the Celtics go for the most challenging route possible as if there's honor in winning the hard way. In reality, the roster has immense talent throughout its ranks, but there's a disconnect between the top 6 or 7 guys and the remaining 8 or 9.
Do Tatum, Brown, and Schroder trust Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford to make the right play? Or do they continually look off their younger counterparts in some form of silent protest? Does Udoka trust his deeper rotation players to make a difference? Without an unbreakable trust between options 1-through-15, this team is doomed to continue sinking into ego-driven basketball, with little choice other than to ride the hot hand on a nightly basis. Unfortunately, teams that preach "top boy" offense, where only the best players spearhead an attack, usually wind up struggling for relevancy throughout a full basketball year.
Something needs to change in how the Celtics approach their offensive game plan, and it starts with leaving the ego in the locker room and trusting your teammates to make the right read time and time again. Otherwise, the failures of last season are doomed to repeat themselves. At that point, it's only a matter of time until the murmurs of discontent begin to arise from the team's young star core.