As the Celtics entered the fourth quarter, there was a fleeting moment that felt like a fairytale comeback was a possibility. Not because the Celtics were playing with urgency, but because of how gutless they had played leading up to the final stretch. The scene was set: the struggling team getting blown out, waiting for a Herculean fourth quarter from somebody, anybody, but ultimately, nobody rose to the occasion.
Defensively, Atlanta reverted to the scheme which won them their first game against Boston: push up hard on three-point shooters and force them to drive and close the passing lanes. Overall, the scheme worked, as the Celtics struggled to find a rhythm.
Offensively, the Hawks were unconscious from deep, putting on a performance fit for a Harlem Globetrotters matinee. We had makes from the logo, deep sideline, off screens, off the catch. Basically, Atlanta got whatever they wanted with very little resistance from a dejected Celtics team.
But how many of Atlanta’s long-range homing missiles were due to poor coverages, and how many were shots you could live with on a nightly basis?
Shots like this one, you live with those. Short of playing a half-court press, there’s not much you can do when a player is hitting from what’s essentially half court. If Atlanta had beat Boston from this distance all night, there would be little complaining we could do, but unfortunately, shots like this were the exception and not the rule.
Far too often, the Celtics got sucked in on the drive and failed to provide adequate help defense on the perimeter, forcing Boston to react with fly-by close outs to try and disturb a shooter who was usually already in motion.
Watch Tatum on this play. Gallinari has found Snell on the perimeter, and the Hawks quickly get into a pick-and-roll opportunity. Tristan Thompson is playing drop, and Aaron Nesmith is guarding Snell. Firstly, Thompson’s focused on the ball handler and not reading the play, allowing John Collins an easy roll into the paint. Secondly, Nesmith does a great job of fighting over the screen and staying connected to Snell on the drive.
Tatum, who is guarding Gallinari, sinks into the paint to tag Collins. Unfortunately, if Thompson had been more tuned in, the tag wouldn’t have been necessary. More importantly, Tatum has no business sinking that deep into the paint as a tag man - the drive is essentially over at this point, making the tag irrelevent.
Ideally, you want your tagger to rotate over and either kill or slow the drive, not come from behind, as the impact of tagging is immediately diminished.
Here’s another defensive possession that breaks down. Trae Young is like a black hole of defense, sucking in everything in his orbit. Jeff Teague starts this play on the strong side, around the dunker spot. As Young drives, Snell relocates to open the lane, but Teague gets caught up in Young’s gravity as three players try to stop him around the rim. The result? An easy swing pass across the baseline to find Snell open in the weak side corner.
No idea what Teague was doing here; he doesn’t have the size to protect the rim, and his presence in the paint only serves to highlight Young’s gravity.
Oh look! Another blown coverage!
What is the point in running a drop defense if you’re not going to switch the pick-and-roll? The guard should add initial pressure after the ball screen and switch onto the perimeter with the big man dropping into the paint. If the offensive big rolls, then once the defensive guard is up to touch with the ball handler, the defensive big switches back onto the roll man.
Here, Collins is the screener and remains on the perimeter. Teague should apply momentary pressure on Young and then recover to Collins to either deter the pass or provide a modicum of resistance. Instead, Teague plays Trae Young’s game, allowing easy access to Collins, with plenty of time to drain the jumper. Pitiful perimeter protection.
In fairness, not every Atlanta bomb was the product of atrocious defense. Sometimes it was just great offense.
Semi Ojeleye and Jeff Teague defend the pick-and-roll perfectly in the above clip, killing any advantage before the offense has time to capitalize. Unfortunately, when a star has a bee in his bonnet and is out to avenge an All-Star snub, the perfect defense isn’t always enough to stop them.
It was a similar story with Gallinari - marginalized in the team’s first two meetings, yet unstoppable on the night, as he punished every micro-adjustment the Celtics made.
So how many of the Hawks’ threes were based on fortune? In truth, not many. The Celtics handed a bunch of these shots to Atlanta on a platter, as their lack of communication and defensive cohesion provided far too much space for a roster littered with sharpshooters.
The good news is that most of these mistakes are an easy fix - better communication and concentration mixed with some pride. The bad news is, these mistakes have blighted the Celtics for the majority of the season, with only fleeting moments of their defensive potential providing any form of hope.
As we edge closer to the All-Star break, the Celtics are in a tricky spot. A team that consists of this much youth will always be inconsistent, but they must remain focused on improvement. Otherwise, should the youth allow this run to affect on their confidence, this won’t be the last mauling we see the team succumb to.