Confidence was high after the Celtics defeated the Denver Nuggets earlier this week. Boston saw the ball move, players cut, and role players hit their shots - there was a synergy to how the team played. Against the Atlanta Hawks, everything came crashing down (again). We’ve been here before, far too recently, when Detroit gave the Celtics a reality check after Boston had played Toronto off the floor.
Each of these defeats has something in common. The losses occur when the Celtics insist on isolation plays, condemning anyone not named Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or Kemba Walker to bit roles as makeshift statues. Playing hero ball isn’t conducive to winning - not in the short, medium, or long term - yet, against an Atlanta team lead by Trae Young, that’s precisely the game plan we saw.
With a minute left in the first quarter, Tatum receives the ball in the corner with fourteen seconds on the shot clock and immediately drives before posting up his man. Tatum’s gravity causes Solomon Hill to dig, which leaves Aaron Nesmith open above the break. Tatum looks off Nesmith and opts to shoot a tough turn-around jumper instead. Ignore the fact that Tatum made the shot and ask yourself, “is this good offense?”
Nesmith came into the league with the reputation of being the best shooter in the draft, and here he is, with enough space to get his shot off, standing there watching as the team’s star isolates. Regardless of if you make the shot or not, turning down a great shot for a good shot is still lousy offense.
Could the defense have closed out on Nesmith to take away the advantage? Sure, but then Payton Pritchard has a quality look. The fact that Tatum spent a large portion of the possession hunting a low-quality look symbolizes the team’s struggles right now.
Overall, the first half of the Hawks game wasn’t terrible in terms of ball movement, but the second half saw the Celtics embrace the hero ball mantra in true 2021 style.
We’ve seen far too many of these possessions this season, an early high pick-and-roll followed by a three-point jump shot. When the Celtics are moving the ball, these shots seldom find their way into the game plan, but when the team is individually focused, we see these attempts far too often.
Watch Cam Reddish on this play. As Tatum comes off the screen, Reddish pinches in from the wing, ready to dig should Tatum drive. A bi-product of defenders pinching is that a pass on the perimeter becomes easy. If the player receiving the pass is athletic, and can attack the rip-through, the defense has to rotate - which creates seams to punish. The player Reddish was sagging off was Jaylen Brown. Does Brown, with his feet set and space to operate, equal a better shooting opportunity than Tatum pulling up off movement? Great shots should always outweigh good ones.
Having a star player looking for their own offense encourages other high-level players on the roster to do the same. It matches a “your turn, my turn” mindset.
You can see above that Brown opts to post-up rather than feed the ball back outside and continue working for a better look. The scenario is similar; the Celtics clear out the strong side to allow Brown to work, and the isolation play fails to bear fruit.
What kind of message are these possessions sending the role players on this roster? That the hierarchy doesn’t trust you? That your only opportunities to impact the game are on bail-out threes, dump-offs, or on the defensive end?
Then there’s the question of whether Brown and Tatum are selfish? Do they trust their teammates? Or are teams forcing their hand, ensuring that contested looks seem the best course of action in the heat of the moment?
The smart money is on both. Not many teams will want to live with Brown and Tatum taking all the shots, especially when you consider your essentially forcing All-Star level guys to get hot. Yet, that is exactly what Atlanta looked to do, as they clogged the passing lanes on countless drives, making life as difficult as possible for the Celtics.
Above is an excellent example of living with forcing tough shots. The Hawks shrink the floor and close off all passing lanes, essentially building a wall around the ball handler while not leaving their man open in case a pass comes over the top. All that’s left is for Brown to operate as a lone wolf and try to work the ball into a scoring position while hoping the defense makes a mistake.
Here’s another example of the Hawks “staying home” on shooters, with the on-ball defender tasked with funneling Tatum towards the hoop, where Clint Capela waits to contest any attempt.
It’s a reasonable response to point towards previous games, where defenses played the Celtics as a collective rather than individuals—especially considering other teams such as Detroit and Washington haven’t schemed around honing in on Brown or Tatum. Meaning that despite the Hawks game plan, there is undoubtedly an issue of trust or coaching that needs to be resolved in the immediate future.
If you imagine a car where Tatum and Brown are the engine, Kemba Walker is the battery, and Marcus Smart is the ignition. The rest of the role players consist of the breaks, turn signals, and steering wheel. It’s ok to stress the engine a little when battling up a steep hill, but you can’t get very far without eventually trusting the steering and breaks to work, too.
Right now, that car is in the shop with car parts strewn across the floor. Until Brad, the mechanic, can piece it back together or Trader Danny acquires the replacement parts, the car won’t be doing anything impressive.
That’s the situation the Celtics find themselves in. Until they can learn to rely on each other and become greater than the sum of their parts, we’re going to see a lot of individual play, and with that, the murmurs of discontent and a clunky engine are only going to get louder.