1. With 6:29 to play in the third quarter Tristan Thompson hit the second of a pair of free throws. That put Boston on top 79-55. That 24-point lead, with roughly a quarter-and-a-half to play, gave the Celtics a 99.1% win-probability. Boston didn’t win.
Here’s the anatomy of the collapse.
2. Before we look at plays to break down what happened, here are the numbers. From the time they took the 24-point lead to the end of regulation, Boston shot 10-for-31 from the field and committed five turnovers. New Orleans shot 19-of-36 and committed just one turnover. New Orleans also rebounded six of their own misses during this roughly 18-minute stretch.
Prior to falling behind by 24, the Pelicans had been hovering just about 40% shooting for the game and had already committed 11 turnovers. The Celtics were in the mid-to-high-40s in shooting and had given the ball away just three times.
This wasn’t just on the offense or the defense. It was a full systemic failure on both ends of the floor.
3. Zion Williamson is a beast. He’s one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, due to a combination of his size, athleticism and his incredibly quick second-jump. He’s going back up before most guys are down the first time.
That said…getting two extra shots when there are three-to-four Celtics in the area is ridiculous. Taking care of the glass isn’t why Boston lost this game, but it was a contributing factor:
4. Semi Ojeleye has certain players he’s a good matchup for. Guys who play mostly with strength are ones Ojeleye can guard. He’s basically a wall of a human. You know what walls can’t do? Move.
Ojeleye had a specific matchup in this game with Williamson. That’s the only time he should have been in the game. Brandon Ingram blows by him far too easily here. Ojeleye’s wasn’t the only culprit, but this sort of thing happened far too often over the game’s final 18 minutes:
5. We all love that Jaylen Brown is taking control of the offense and has become a good playmaker (nine assists vs New Orleans). But that comes with tradeoffs. With more ballhandling comes more turnovers. Not sure what Brown is attempting here, but this isn’t a workable play:
Also, note when that action started. There were about 17 seconds on the shot clock. That’s because Boston started walking the ball up after building the big lead. It’s fine to milk some clock, but that’s a late fourth quarter thing. As the lead shrunk, the Celtics played slower and slower.
6. Regularly throughout the fourth quarter and overtime, Boston crossed the timeline, without being pressured, with just 16-17 to seconds on the shot clock. Actions then started with around 12 seconds left. That resulted in bad ISO shots like this:
It’s not that Tatum can’t make this shot. He does, and with some regularity too. It’s that this was a possession built off a lot of dribbling and getting into a shot with little time left on the clock.
Following the game, both Tatum and Jaylen Brown commented that the Celtics need to continue to push the ball up the floor and get into sets quicker. Some blame can be placed on Brad Stevens here, but on multiple trips you could see Stevens windmilling his arm like prime Wendell Kim, as he exhorted his team to get the ball up the floor. There is only so much a coach can do to influence pace and force his players to play faster.
7. The 24-point lead Boston was a bit of fool’s gold. New Orleans turned it over at an abnormal rate. And Boston was converting those turnovers, many live-ball ones, into a ton of point. Once the Pelicans calmed that down and turned it into a halfcourt game, their physicality took over.
It wasn’t just Williamson either. Ingram, slight as he may be, was using his body to contort around defenders. And Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball picked up the on-ball defense and made it difficult for the Celtics to create any good looks.
8. Look at these shot charts:
The first one is Boston’s. The Celtics shot 1-of 7 on floater and mid-range shots. Many of them were contested, difficult looks. They were 4-of-7 around the rim. Three-point shooting was bad at 2-of-9.
The second shot chart is from New Orleans. No floaters or mid-range shots. The Pelicans were basically as bad as the Celtics from deep at 3-of-11. The difference? 9-of-12 right at the rim. That’s bullying your way back into the game.
9. Remember when we said the big lead was fool’s gold? Part of that was the play of Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker. The two combined to shoot 12-of-43, including 4-of-22 from behind the arc. Only a bit of a late flurry from Brown got those numbers to even where they finished at.
Brown can be excused a bad shooting night. He’s generally been excellent. Walker is still finding his rhythm, so you can understand it with him too. But it’s starting to get concerning that both are prone to bouts of inconsistency from game-to-game and even within games themselves.
The bigger point is that if two of three out of Brown, Walker and Jayson Tatum aren’t somewhere from good to great, the Celtics aren’t winning games. The depth just isn’t there to support them.
10. These last thoughts are a bit scattered. The Celtics are 15-15. They have six games left before the All-Star break. Most are relatively though ones (at Dallas, at Atlanta, vs Indiana, vs Washington, vs LA Clippers vs Raptors), but four of the six are at home. If the Celtics want to build any sort of confidence in this team heading into the break, they’ll have to go at least 4-2 and mostly take care of business in the home games. Anything less than 4-2, and no one is going to feel good. Even that probably won’t be enough.
On the bright side, despite being just a perfectly average 15-15, Boston is only three games out in the loss column from second place in the Eastern Conference. This is as weird a season as the NBA has ever seen. 10 teams are within three games of a .500 record. There is little to no separation in either conference. About 25 teams are a good week from feeling great about their chances to make the playoffs and/or contend for a championship. Conversely about 20 teams are a bad week from wondering if they should blow it up and try again next year.
That’s not intended to be much solace for Celtics fans. This team has underachieved. There are holes on the roster. Boston is overly reliant on players who are 25-years-old and younger. That’s a big part of why the team is inconsistent.
What is intended to provide some relief and perspective is that things aren’t lost. Sometimes young teams need a while to figure it out. While Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have an incredible amount of high-leverage experience for their age, many of their teammates do not. Often times, young teams all of a sudden just click. If the Celtics click, that could push them up multiple places in the standings in the span of a week.
Things certainly aren’t good right now. Sure, they could take a turn for the worse and the wheels could come off. But it’s more likely that things will eventually take a turn for the better. And because of how compact the standings are, that turn will have more of an impact than it would in a normal season.
Here’s to hoping it’s the latter. And here’s to hoping it happens sooner, rather than later.