1. Let’s start with the banged-up Boston Celtics taking the defending champions down to the wire on the road on Christmas Day being pretty good. Doing so when the entirety of the frontcourt rotation was Robert Williams, Jabari Parker and Juancho Hernangomez is even better.
If you just looked at the box score and knew nothing else, you’d probably say something like “What a gutty effort!” and you’d be correct. It was a gutty effort. The team battled all game long.
Yeah. That doesn’t really tell the story, does it?
After Jayson Tatum hit a pair of free throws with 5:28 to play, the Celtics led the Milwaukee Bucks 109-96. Over that final 5:28, Milwaukee outscored Boston 21-4.
A late-game collapse lost the game for the Celtics. Again.
This has started to become a terrible trend for this team. The NBA defines “clutch” games being within five points with five minutes or fewer. In those games, the Celtics are just 1-8.
Here’s the thing…This one wasn’t even a “clutch” game when “clutch” time started!
Losing close games is one thing. It’s bad enough by itself. Boston has struggled in those situations for years now. How do you avoid those situations? Don’t let it get to that point in the first place! Blowing big leads to lose in the clutch is without a doubt the most frustrating way to lose a game. And the Boston Celtics have perfected that type of loss so far this season.
2. During the above period, Jayson Tatum was pretty rough. And it’s not the first time he’s struggled down the stretch this season. In this one, he was particularly bad. Tatum went 0-for-2 from the floor with two turnovers and two fouls during the final 5:28 of the game. He also passed out of what looked like a layup on a play where Giannis Antetokounmpo made an incredible block on Robert Williams.
This turnover was one Celtics fans have seen all too often:
The defense knows Tatum is going to spin into the lane. Jrue Holiday drops in there for steal. Robert Williams made a spectacular play, but the ball bounced out to Wesley Matthews and he gave the Bucks their first lead of the game.
Beyond the turnover, Tatum needs to be better late in games. He can be, because we’ve all seen it. This season, however, it hasn’t been the case. Boston needs Tatum to find his clutch game again, and the sooner, the better.
3. It wasn’t, of course, all on Jayson Tatum. Jaylen Brown is owed some criticism for his play in this game too. Brown has developed a habit this season of getting off to great starts and then fizzling out as the game goes along. Brown scored 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the first quarter of this game. The rest of the way Brown scored nine points on 2-of-11 shooting.
Brown was the only Celtic to score in the final 5:28, as he hit one jumper and two free throws. But he was also 1-for-3 from the floor during that period. He’s just as culpable as Tatum is for the poor play down the stretch.
4. The Celtics clearly have some stuff to figure out, especially late in games. Even flipping only a couple of those losses to wins, and we’d all feel better about this team. It’s up to Ime Udoka, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to figure it out as the team’s leaders. The role players need to step up and help, but it’s on the stars and the coach to lead the team to wins.
5. Speaking of role players, they did their jobs. In a game where Boston only played eight guys, they got good to great performances out five of them. Let’s start with Romeo Langford.
Langford has earned a bigger role with solid play on both ends this season. He opened the scoring with a three:
Grayson Allen doesn’t want Langford to drive past him, so he’s willing to let him shoot. That’s becoming a dangerous proposition, as Langford is hitting 36% from down this season.
Langford is Boston’s best cutter. He’s learned that if he makes the right cut, Robert Williams, Al Horford and Grant Williams will find him. Here’s Timelord playing Dimelord to find Langford:
But what’s going to keep Langford on the floor is his defense. He’s regularly up to the task of challenging bigger players, as he does here against DeMarcus Cousins:
6. Robert Williams only needs to stay healthy to have a huge impact for the Celtics. He’s got all the tools to be an All-Star someday. You saw the pass above. Here’s Williams getting way up for the follow dunk:
On the next trip, Williams grabs the offensive rebound and makes the outstanding pass all in one motion:
Outside of a jumper (and it’s showing baby steps of that coming along), Williams has the total package.
7. Payton Pritchard’s reemergence has been a bright spot in an up-and-down couple of weeks for the Celtics. He has to have earned a rotation spot at this point, even when everyone is healthy. Pritchard is probably the team’s best pure shooter. This pullup zone-beater was really good:
Pritchard is also back to being aggressive and feisty on defense. He’s into the much bigger Khris Middleton the whole way here, and finishes with a nice strip:
You saw the pullup off the screen to beat the zone earlier. Another zone-beater? Shooting from beyond the zone’s reach:
Now that he’s playing with confidence, expect to see more shots like this rainbow fallaway from Pritchard:
8. No one expected Jabari Parker to be making an impact on Christmas Day, but he was really good in this game. This play starts with Marcus Smart attacking the paint. Then Parker lets it fly right off the catch from Payton Pritchard:
Another catch-and-shoot from Parker off a kickout from Jayson Tatum:
Parker worked his tail off against Giannis Antetokounmpo too. He didn’t always get the stop, but he made Antetokounmpo work for everything he got. That’s all you can ask for. This play starts with a nice steal, then Parker runs the floor to get the hustle board and the and-1:
9. Juancho Hernangomez wasn’t as impactful as Parker, but his minutes weren’t a mess either. Called upon for emergency action, Hernangomez delivered some solid play. More shots like this would be nice:
Pending the health of others, we’ve probably seen the last of Hernangomez playing any form of meaningful minutes for the Celtics. His $7 million pseudo-expiring contract is mostly still around as a nice piece of salary-matching in a potential trade.
10. So, it wasn’t an ideal Christmas Day for the Celtics, given the way the game played out. December continues to deliver the brutal stretch of games we predicted. Boston now heads off to Minnesota for a matchup on Monday before two in a row at home against the LA Clippers and red-hot Phoenix Suns.
Given how banged up both the Timberwolves and Clippers are, the Celtics still have a shot to finish the month at .500. This space said that should be the goal, and it’s in range now. Then, the schedule lightens up considerably when the year changes over. Just as Boston should hopefully be finding some better health.
The Celtics can still make a major run this season. A strong second half can’t be counted out. But they’ve got to figure out how to hold leads and close games. If they can, Boston will be a dangerous team come playoff time.