A patchwork rotation is going to put together a patchwork performance.
The Celtics fought valiantly on Wednesday night before falling 116-111 in Sacramento as their reserves tried to plug the leaks on the depth chart. The back-and-forth affair on Wednesday highlighted all of Boston’s strengths, as superstar Jayson Tatum fell one board shy of a triple-double (27 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds) and Jaylen Brown had a productive 24-point evening.
The loss also accented their continued struggles as they plod their way through the early part of the season. Injuries have stretched their young rotation. Inconsistent shooting around their superstars have wasted superstar performances. And a too often porous defense has forced them to play heavy doses of zone.
Coming into the game, we knew the Celts would be somewhat shorthanded. Marcus Smart is out with his calf injury, and Payton Pritchard needs just a few more days to rest. With Kemba Walker still avoiding back-to-back games due to load management, the team entered this Kings game minus their three best point guards.
Jeff Teague and Tremont Waters logged heavier minutes than they normally command, but were ill-equipped for the roles as floor spacers flanking Tatum and Brown. Teague and Waters combined to go 2-for-14 from the field and provided little in the way of resistance to Sacramento’s budding backcourt. De’Aaron Fox (26 points, 11 dimes) went off down the stretch, while rookie Tyrese Haliburton put together a career night (21 points on 5-of-9 shooting from deep).
Coach Brad Stevens was searching for answers throughout. He played eleven guys, trying to juggle the arduous tasks of keeping enough talent on the floor while not overloading Tatum and Brown on the second night of a back-to-back. Clutch minutes found their way into the hands of Teague, Grant Williams and Javonte Green — and this was still a one-possession game with less than ten seconds remaining.
Much of the credit for that belongs to Tatum, who put forth a Herculean effort. Despite a cold night from downtown, he was 9-for-16 inside the arc and had countless clutch buckets to keep the Celtics involved. Combine that with his ten dimes and he was the engine driving pretty much everything for Boston on Wednesday.
He hit his first hot streak early in the second quarter, feasting on the undersized Cory Joseph in isolations. He could drive past his man and get to the rim, or take him in the post with some shots very high on the difficulty scale:
After a quiet third quarter, it was Tatum who carried the half-court offense late. He faced constant pressure and needed to run off many lateral cuts to get himself open, but would isolate or come off ball screens to drill his only treys on the night.
One of them came on his side-step move, which is officially patent pending:
Down four with 1:11 to play, Brad Stevens drew up a stellar after timeout play to get Tatum going downhill to his right hand. He drew the and-one, bringing the score to 112-111:
Stevens coached a pretty dang good game if you ask me. He continually put Tatum in matchups he could exploit, found ways to encourage Jaylen to mismatch post the much weaker Buddy Hield and drew up fantastic sets down the stretch. He’ll get some flack for the rotations, a common theme from his critics all year. But with the injuries facing this squad right now, there’s nobody reliable on the second unit for Brad to count on.
Hodgepodge rotations aren’t on the coach in this one. He was clearly trying to work based on matchups all night, starting big with Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis to match with Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley III. Both Grant Williams and Javonte Green were solid in their minutes to earn a late-game run. Teague being on the floor in closing minutes was a case of going with the veteran presence in a ‘pick your poison’ scenario.
Stevens also knew the Celtics’ struggles on defense prevented them from hanging with Sacramento in man-to-man. A 15-2 third-quarter run was fueled by the Celtics switching to an amoeba-like zone, shapeshifting throughout possessions as the Kings struggled to find a point of attack.
Was it an amoeba? A 2-3? A 1-3-1?
Who the heck knows?
Answer: not Sacramento.
It appeared that they tried both a true 2-3 and their zone of confusion, trying to keep the Kings guessing in the frame. Stevens proactively got away from it, back-pocketing it for late in the close game before the opponent could solve it. It was exactly the coaching adjustment that kept the Celtics in this one.
As Stevens has said before, it’s pretty difficult to be good at two defenses when you can’t even be good at one. The zone is more of a changeup, a band-aid for when they must cauterize the bleeding from their man-to-man attack. Credit the Kings’ guards for attacking Boston’s largest vulnerability on Wednesday and getting into the lane off dribble penetration. Fox, in particular, was astoundingly quick and got a paint touch whenever he wanted.
I’m not a big silver linings guy, but there are certainly positives to take away from being so close to picking up a shorthanded road win against a scrappy, underrated Sacramento squad. More than anything, the injury report will be much shorter soon. With Kemba and Pritchard ready to roll, it’s easy to see the brighter days on the horizon. Three more games remain in this West Coast road trip, and the rotations should be stable for them all.