1. Kemba Walker got off to a great start for the Celtics. He hit 4-of-5 shots in the first quarter for nine points. After that? Walker only got seven more attempts and went 1-of-7 from the field. What happened?
It wasn’t really the Nets taking him away with any sort of exotic defense or anything. Walker simply didn’t really see the ball enough to maintain that early rhythm. Jaylen Brown took 23 shots and Jayson Tatum had 23 shooting possessions (23 field goals and got fouled once) and Marcus Smart had 10 shooting possessions (six shots and got fouled four times while shooting off the bench). When Walker has it going, the Brad Stevens has to make sure to keep him involved by calling his number. He can’t trust that it will just come in the normal flow of the offense.
2. Walker made two great plays in transition defense. Because he’s a guard who takes a lot of jumpers, he’s often the first man back. When he has efforts like this one, it’s a boon to the defense:
Here’s the second great effort. Walker denies Joe Harris at the rim, which allows Jeff Teague to catch up and block Landry Shamet’s layup:
Those are effort plays and something others can feed off of.
3. Speaking of effort plays, Marcus Smart was back and looked really good. He played within himself offensively and scored 19 points, including 8-of-9 at the free throw line. His defensive play was some of the better on the team, but that’s a pretty low bar. Most importantly: Smart looked fine physically.
He also lauded his team’s effort. Postgame Smart said “Our effort was there, and I can live with a loss when our effort is there.” That’s a great observation from the team’s leader. In some of the team’s more recent losses, the effort has been lackluster. Against Brooklyn, it was there all game. It just didn’t result in a win.
4. The Celtics bench production was a key catalyst during the four-game win streak heading into the All-Star break. Against Brooklyn, they were thoroughly outplayed by their counterparts. Not only did the Nets reserves outscore the Boston backups by a 39-29 margin, the plus/minus numbers were really bad too. The Celtics starters largely played the Nets starters pretty even. This game was lost by the difference in bench minutes.
5. Another contributing factor to the loss was Jaylen Brown’s rough game. Brown didn’t look like himself defensively (a worrisome season-long trend) and his shot was off. Brown was just 5-of-23 from the floor and some of his misses weren’t even close.
How much Brown’s knee soreness is limiting him is an unknown. He and the team both feel like it’s something he can play through. More concerning, at least as far as this game went, was Brown’s style of play. When his jumper wasn’t falling, Brown didn’t go to his driving game, at least not in his regular way. He started hunting for fouls and took off-balance and unmakeable shots. This is one to walk away from and forget ever happened for the All-Star.
6. Jayson Tatum looked pretty good though. He hit 13-of-22 field goals and scored in a variety of ways. It was an efficient performance, as Tatum was able to beat overmatched defenders all game. He even worked the seal game with Daniel Theis for one of the few times this season:
Tatum has learned how to use Tristan Thompson as a screener. He uses an initial screen to get the catch. Then the spacing is great here, as Tatum uses the screen and loops back under it to make sure he has the space for the jumper:
This shot cut the Nets lead to two points, which was as close as the Celtics would get down the stretch. It’s always good see Tatum use his size, skill and athleticism together on plays like this. This is a hard to stop combo:
7. All of the above is what makes Tatum’s late-game turnovers so frustrating. Here was one against the Nets. It’s just sloppy, careless ballhandling. And it led to a Kyrie Irving dagger three-pointer:
Now, it begs the question: Does Tatum turn it over too often in “clutch” situations? The NBA defines clutch moments as “five minutes or less left in the game with their team leading or trailing by five or fewer points”. Boston has played more clutch games than any team in the NBA season. A whopping 23 of the Celtics 37 games meet the clutch criteria. Boston is 11-12 in such games.
How does Tatum do during these periods? He has seven total turnovers during clutch time. That’s tied for sixth-most in the NBA. Who is in front of or tied with Tatum? LeBron James, Trae Young, Nikola Jokic, James Harden and a host of other NBA stars. Per game, Tatum’s turnover numbers drop by a quite a bit though.
So, Tatum’s turnover rate or amount aren’t really some crazy outlier in the clutch, like it may seem. It’s just something that occasionally comes with the territory of being one of the game’s best closers.
8. Above we mentioned Kyrie Irving hitting a dagger three. That was part of a 40-point night where Irving had an answer for every Boston push. This one wasn’t a case of the Celtics letting a guy get off and trying nothing different to stop him either. They ran some double-teams and traps at Irving. He’s just such a great ballhandler and passer that those don’t really bother him. Marcus Smart had a few good individual trips on Irving, but that was about it. You just tip your cap to him and move on.
9. Let’s close on a positive. Robert Williams blocking three-pointers has become a real thing. Here’s Williams catching Landry Shamet completely by surprise:
Late in the game, Williams did the almost impossible. He blocked a James Harden step-back three-pointer without fouling:
This is a real thing now and it’s a weapon for the Celtics defense.
10. Boston has a couple of days off to regroup before they head to Houston to play the Rockets on Sunday night. The Rockets are a mess right now. This is a game where the Celtics should come out and dominate. No one should have a lot of faith in that happening, given the trends of this season, but that’s what should happen.
A loss to the Nets in Brooklyn, even without Kevin Durant, is nothing to be ashamed of. They are very good. Anything but a convincing win over a hapless Houston team is cause for concern that the Celtics may never find that elusive winning rhythm this season.