1. No, the Boston Celtics aren’t playing for moral victories. This latest loss, to the Golden State Warriors, dropped Boston back under .500 on the season. That’s not where even the biggest Celtics pessimist expected them to be approaching Christmas.
Yet, this also wasn’t a bad loss. Boston was down several rotation players and lost another one during the game. The Celtics got down by as many as 20 points, but they fought back. And this wasn’t one of those “fake comebacks” where the team played hard for the last five minutes of a blowout and tightens up the final score-line.
This time around, Boston showed some real fight. Their third-quarter defense was some of the best they’ve played all season. And they did it against the NBA’s best third-quarter team. This was a real comeback.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. We’ll cover some of the reasons why in the forthcoming Takeaways. But this isn’t a loss, like so many on the road trip, where you walk away wondering who this team is and if they’re even worth investing time into. Fight like this, against anyone but the best team in the league, will get the Celtics wins.
2. Jayson Tatum finished with 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists. We’re going to focus on some of the assists here, because he had some beauties. Tatum, like many of his teammates, is at his best when he gets into the paint. This drive-and-kick should be a staple of the Celtics offense:
This one may have been Tatum’s best read of the night. He’s got whole defense focused on him. As the defenders subtly shift out to Tatum, the weakside corner man drops towards the pain. Tatum zips the pass to Aaron Nesmith for a triple:
We don’t see Tatum work as a pick-and-roll passer all that often, minus the occasional lob to Robert Williams. He’s starting to come along in that area, as you can see by this really nice bounce-pass to Enes Freedom for the layup:
This is another good play here. Tatum had it going as a scorer at this point in the game. Instead of forcing up a contested shot, he makes the right play and pitches it out to Jaylen Brown. This is also a good read, because the natural inclination here is to throw it to one of the corners. But the Warriors stay home and the defense from the top collapses, opening up Brown:
3. One of the reasons the Celtics lost was some truly terrible rebounding for a large portion of the game. This has become a recurring issue for Boston. At one point, the Warriors had grabbed around 50% of their own misses. That’s ruining some really good defensive trips.
What’s hard to explain is that the rebounding seems to come and go. For the season, Boston is 12th in the NBA in defensive rebounding rate. Watching some of their losses, it feels as though that number should rank down in the bottom-third of the league.
4. This was sort of a “Marcus Smart giveth and taketh” game. Smart was more good than bad, as he finished with 19 points, six rebounds and eight assists. He was also a big part of holding Stephen Curry to 8-of-21 shooting.
Some of Smart’s good plays included this crafty finish. These are becoming a big part of Smart’s driving game:
On the next trip, Smart grabbed the board and pushed the ball himself. He attacked before the Warriors could set their defense and that helped get Josh Richardson the open three-pointer:
In the second half, it was more of the same. Ime Udoka has been asking his offense to play with better pace, and Smart seems to have figured it out. This is another hard push and attack against a transitioning Golden State defense. The result is another open three:
5. Unfortunately, Smart was a big part of a bad end to the first half. Stephen Curry is a rarity among NBA players (oddly enough, so is Smart) in that he’ll take the end-of-clock heave without regard to his shooting percentage. You know Curry is taking this shot:
Smart should not have left his feet. If Curry makes this, you tip your hat and head to the break. And for those screaming that Curry launched himself forward, he was shooting from behind halfcourt. That’s a perfectly natural motion on that type of attempt. This was a good call live and held up after review.
In all, Curry drained four free throws before the halftime buzzer. He hit all three from the foul and added a bonus because Ime Udoka was given a technical foul for arguing the call. That was a pretty big popping of the balloon heading into the break.
6. Part of the Celtics second-half comeback was great hustle. Twice, Boston did this off jump-balls. First, Jayson Tatum outran everyone to get this tip for a fastbreak dunk after Marcus Smart outjumped Kevon Looney:
The next one came to give the Celtics a fighting chance in the games closing minutes. Again, Marcus Smart makes the play:
7. Aaron Nesmith was always going to see some increased minutes with the Celtics down players due to health and safety protocols. Those minutes went up even more after Romeo Langford left the game with an injury in the first half. Nesmith took advantage of his opportunity. The second-year wing scored 11 points and contributed several of the hustle plays we’re used to seeing from him.
It was fun to see Ime Udoka show faith in Nesmith by drawing up an ATO for him. This play started with a lot of window dressing on the opposite side, while Nesmith planted himself in the strongside corner. This is where the ball was always designed to go, and Nesmith delivered:
In the fourth quarter, this is the most aggressive Nesmith has been about attacking a closeout. Nemanja Bjelica shows him the baseline and Nesmith takes it right to the rim for the and-1:
Bonus: Look in the lower lefthand corner at Jayson Tatum. Those who say he shows no emotion and doesn’t cheer for his teammates might be surprised at what they see.
8. Two factors in Boston’s loss to Golden State: Missed free throws and turnovers.
All year long, the Celtics have been one of the NBA’s best free throw shooting teams. They get to the line a lot (4th in volume, 3rd in rate) and they make a lot. Combine the two, and they are probably the best in the league at the charity stripe.
Inexplicably, they missed nine of their 29 attempts on Friday night. It’s just one of those where you shrug and move on, because there really isn’t a good reason it happened.
What can’t get shrugged off as easily is another high turnover game. Boston has been middle-of-the-pack as far as coughing the ball up goes. But it’s one of those “20 turnovers one night, eight the next you’re a 14 turnover a night team” sort of deals.
Jaylen Brown has been loose with his handle since his return. That’s probably just a rhythm thing and he’ll figure it out. Overall, 16 turnovers are too many against a good Warriors team.
9. Let’s do a quick injury and illness update. Boston has the following players in health and safety protocols: Sam Hauser, Juancho Hernangomez, Al Horford, Jabari Parker and Grant Williams. That’s a large portion of the team’s frontcourt.
Dennis Schroder was out on Friday due to a non-COVID illness. He’s questionable to play on Saturday night.
Romeo Langford left the game with neck pain after catching an inadvertent elbow in the first half. There was no update on his status for Saturday.
All told, that’s seven players who may be out for Saturday’s back-to-back. As Ime Udoka said, “We’re going through it right now”. Udoka indicated pregame that Boston has had no discussion of using the hardship exception to add any additional players. We’ll see if that changes if Schroder and/or Langford are out beyond Saturday.
10. Speaking of Saturday, Boston gets right back to it against the New York Knicks on a rare back-to-back that features consecutive home games. The Knicks come in dealing with their own COVID and injury issues. This is a matchup of two banged up and disappointing teams. It’s a game Boston could, and probably should, win. But as we’ve learned, you can’t take anything for granted with this Celtics team.