At the 6:29 mark of the third quarter, Jayson Tatum picked off a lazy pass from Lonzo Ball. Tristan Thompson raced down the court in transition, beat his coverage, and bullied Brandon Ingram in the restricted area. Tatum found Thompson, Ingram fouled him to prevent the easy two, and Thompson causally sank two free throws. The play encapsulated the early effort in New Orleans: connected on defense and opportunistic on offense.
The Celtics lead over the Pelicans ballooned to 24 points, but for the rest of the game including overtime, everything went wrong.
“We got a lot of things to clean up obviously, but finishing the game is #1,” Brad Stevens said after his team lost in overtime 120-115 with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram combining for 61 points.
In the first half, the Celtics smothered Williamson. Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson held him to 1-for-5 shooting and forced three turnovers. It was a completely different story after halftime. Point Zion abused Boston’s defense in space, attacking the offensive glass from the perimeter and driving his 300-pound frame into the paint.
“They spread us out and drove us right to the rim. There are times when we could have done a lot better. We had a couple major errors in transition obviously at that time. There were times where we could have handled the drive better,” Stevens said. “But there were also times when Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram put their shoulders down and got where they wanted to go.”
Here’s the Pelicans’ shot distribution when they outscored the Celtics 65-36 to close out the game:
The numbers look terrible and ultimately, it’s simply a game of scoring points, but so many times in the second half, New Orleans just made contested shots in the restricted area. They nearly doubled up the Celtics with shots at the rim 23 to 12. According to ESPN’s Stats & Info, the Pelicans shot 55% during that stretch, including 41% on contested shots. On the other side of the spectrum, Boston hit just 32% of their shots in the final twenty-three minutes (24% on contested shots).
Some of it can be blamed on defensive schemes and errors. Some of it, you just have to tip your cap to Stan Van Gundy and an aggressive, young Pelicans team successfully scratching and clawing their way to their biggest comeback in franchise history.
Offensively, Boston played with a sense of complacency after they built that big lead. “I think naturally when you get up like that, you get more casual and you’re playing not to lose instead of playing to win, instead of being in attack mode,” Jayson Tatum said. “You kind of plan not to mess up and then that’s when you do, when you overthink it.”
“I think we play better when we play faster. We’re not as predictable. I think in the second half we played slower and the ball didn’t move as much,” Jaylen Brown said.
Starting possessions with half the shot clock burned off gave the Pelicans a chance to speed up Boston and force bad shots. “I thought they were super aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverages. They really blitzed which they’ve done a lot in games,” Stevens said. “They put us on our heels.”
Pelicans turn the heat back up on Tatum here, trapping him. NAW makes the rotation to Theis but then recovers back. Problem really is the recovery by everyone. If Theis is a shooter shooter this looks bad. pic.twitter.com/Qifg3QmPla— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 21, 2021
The Celtics only had 10 turnovers in the matinee. That control and focus helped them build that big lead, but in the crunch, they just could not make a shot while the Pelicans continuously pounded the paint. During that anemic stretch, they were 1-for-12 in the mid-range and hit just two of their 14 three-pointers. After a strong four-game stretch, Kemba Walker laid an egg (5-for-21, a whopping 1-for-12 from 3).
“We were never able to hit the big shot or two to keep the lead where it was as they were coming back,” Stevens said.
The Celtics are now 29th in the league in 4th quarter net rating at -7.8. To put that into perspective, division rivals Toronto, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn come in at 10.2, 7.9, and 4.1. Marcus Smart’s absence doesn’t help. Closing rotations haven’t been consistent. In a game that saw so many individual highlights--particularly from Boston’s youngsters like Robert Williams, Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Pritchard--collectively, the Celtics still haven’t figured out how to close games.
“We’ve gotta mature and grow up,” Brown said.