Injuries remain prevalent as Marcus Smart isn’t expected back until after the All-Star break. Though he finished with 21 points and was a team-high plus-9 against Dallas, Boston still isn’t exactly sure which version of Kemba Walker to expect on a night-to-night basis.
Amid all the highs and lows, the one thing the Celtics have been able to count on with some levels of consistency has been their starting unit.
Though a bit antiquated up front, the five-man squad of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis, and Tristan Thompson has been Boston’s second-most used lineup and far outpaces #1 on that list in net rating (10.8 compared to -4.3 with Marcus Smart in place of Kemba).
Against Dallas, that success was reaffirmed. The starters played 13 minutes together, more than double the next-closest lineup. An offensive rating of 116 with a stingy defensive rating of 100 kept the Celtics close before the heroics of Luka Doncic put them away for good in the game’s final seconds.
“I feel better about us defensively and offensively,” Brown said after the game. “We just gotta string it together and I think it’s a matter of time.”
A good chunk of that success is powered by Boston’s two All-Stars — feels good to finally be official — especially at the offensive end, where they ended with a combined 57 points. But sprinkled throughout those 13 minutes were contributions from the other three, offering a sense of the bits and pieces that play a part in the success of the lineup, starting with a nice pass by Thompson to find Tatum for the layup early in the first.
Thompson had actually shown significant improvements as a passer during his final two seasons in Cleveland. Nobody took notice of one of the worst teams in the league, but Thompson’s assist rate reached double figures for the only two times in his career.
By quickly swinging the ball to the high post, Boston penalizes Josh Richardson for trying to front Tatum near the right block before Dallas’ defense can even recognize the help that needs to be sent.
Tatum and Brown might enjoy creating their own shots, but too much isolation creates a level of predictability teams can exploit down the stretch. It partially explains why the Celtics have one of the five-worst 4th quarter net ratings with the eighth-worst crunch time offense in the NBA.
The more players you involve in any given set, the more attention you force the defense to give, thereby opening any number of doors to exploit when they inevitably make a mistake.
“Trust, we’re building it,” Brown said. “We got new guys that are trying to find a rhythm. We got multiple bigs that are playing... Each and every night we’re still trying to find that consistency with each other cuz things vary from game to game.”
One of the critical stretches of this game came in the early minutes of the third quarter. The Celtics’ defense had allowed the Mavericks to shoot 51.1 percent from the field over the first 24 minutes to hold a slim one-point lead. To build separation, stops were a prerequisite.
Dallas cracked the 60-point mark on a Doncic’s 3-pointer at the 10:44 mark of the third. They wouldn’t score again until Tim Hardaway Jr. tipped in his own miss with 5:13 left in the frame. That’s a string of over five minutes — a lifetime in today’s NBA — in which an offense that has now climbed to 10th in the league missed all five of its 3-point attempts and each of its four looks inside the arc, all coming in or around the paint.
The Celtics didn’t capitalize on this stretch as well as they should have offensively with more turnovers (4) than field goals (3). But the defensive energy needed to keep Dallas scoreless was noticeable, something that hasn’t always been the case from a team ranked 17th in the month of February.
In the play below, Walker forces Richardson to the baseline, where he and Thompson box the two-guard into the left corner and use active hands to deny the dump off to a rolling James Johnson.
Richardson is only able to find a cutting Dorian Finney-Smith as he sails out of bounds. Even with his back turned, Theis swivels to impede Smith’s drive to the bucket, eventually blocking his shot. While this is happening, Tatum rotates over to Dwight Powell, who Theis had to abandon to protect the basket.
Teams of all caliber always want their starting five to be capable of setting a positive tone to start both halves and ideally finish tight games when necessary — also matchup dependent. On a team with questionable bench help, Boston gains considerable value from a unit it can trust in its entirety.
There are no grand conclusions to draw from a late February loss, even if a third defeat in four games plunges many Celtics fans further into panic mode. That’s why you have to seek out smaller positives to build off of for the following games.
Whether it’s a nice pass by Thompson or fundamentally sound defensive movement amid a drive and kick, Boston’s starters had plenty of such moments. Find and take solace in them. With seven losses in their last 10 games, there isn’t much else.
“Keep building on defense and just string some wins together,” Brown said when asked about what needs to be the focus for the Celtics to return to contender status. “Win as many games as we can before the All-Star break, get back above .500, and just keep playing good basketball.”
“It’s a long season. So, we still got, what, 40 games left to play? So, looking forward to each and every day.”