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Free throw trauma: Celtics can’t get to the line against Jazz

Four attempts at the line hurt Boston’s chances of success.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Boston Celtics Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time, in recent memory, where we all begged for the Celtics to abandon their perimeter game and get to the hole. Too often, we saw a team fall back on jacking up shot after shot from deep, hoping to dig themselves out of yet another self-inflicted hole.

We all know that high-level perimeter play is an imperative aspect of a successful offense in the modern NBA. Otherwise, the plodding big man would still be in vogue, and Andre Drummond would be a perennial MVP candidate. With our pleas for more rack attacks, it was apparent that what we really wanted was a diversified offense.

Outside of balance and aesthetics, one of the primary benefits of driving the ball is forcing defensive mistakes—a missed rotation, over-helping, collapsing the defense, or most importantly, foul drawing. Go at the defense enough, and fouls become an inevitability.

The more you drive and attack, the more a defense back peddles and contests. The more a defense contests, the more they’re going to give away fouls. The logic is impenetrable—a gameplan as old as time itself.

Here’s the caveat: players can’t rely on their scoring prowess to attract contact. The league’s premium defenders will know how to shade you onto your weaker hand or alter your release point with pressure. There’s a reason some of the league’s best players are elite at foul drawing; it’s an art form that, while often villainized, is essential to a player’s offensive repertoire.

Against the Utah Jazz, the Celtics’ individual and collective foul-drawing shortcomings were laid bare. Despite the team attempting 57 shots in the paint, they only attained four freebies at the line.

To begin the game, the Celtics looked lively and shunned the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert intimidation tactics, which often deterred any form of penetration. Instead, they took the game to the former Defensive Player of the Year, driving at him relentlessly, looking to pull him out of position before making a simple read. The gameplan was working, and the Celtics kept chipping away at the league’s most in-form team.

In fairness, the game wasn’t one of the more physical Boston has endured in recent weeks. There was a pace and flow to the game that made it enjoyable to watch. Yet, the Jazz were able to accrue 24 attempts at the line. So, where did things go wrong for Boston?

Logically, the Celtics chose to attack the Jazz in pockets of space left from Rudy Gobert playing drop defense, pulling up from the free-throw line, or releasing floaters to beat his ridiculous wing-span. When you’re hunting pockets and operating in the space provided, teams will pressure the shot with close-outs rather than straight-up shot contests - practical offensive ideas but not conducive to getting to the line.

However, as with all plans, there are times when they go out the window. In no world could the Celtics expect to operate in one particular spot of the floor and find consistent success - so, at times, they drove the ball or worked it around the rim. The team finished the contest with 27 attempts around the cup, converting 19 of them, but drew no fouls. Similarly, the Celtics took 25 shots inside the paint (but not at the rim), made 11 of them, and you guessed it! Drew no fouls.

While the Celtics are not prolific in getting to the line, they’re no slouches either. Their “core four” players are averaging around four attempts per game this season, and the team has taken a cumulative 867 free throws over 39 games so far, giving us an average of 22.2 charity looks per game.

Which begs the question, why did the Celtics fail to draw contact? Was it the refs? Possibly! There were some curious no-calls throughout the contest, but not enough to explain a drop off this steep. Did the Jazz do a great job of guarding the Celtics? You bet! They pinched their wings, dropped their big, and hit their rotations with conviction.

Mostly, though, it was the Celtics failing to capitalize on their positioning. For all their improvements driving the ball, Tatum and Brown have both failed to add a consistent veer step into their arsenal. Kemba Walker will always slalom and step back before hunting out contact around the cup. And Marcus Smart isn’t back to full fitness yet, so his offensive contributions are limited.

In a game that the Celtics lost by eight, it’s undoubtedly possible that their lack of free-throws cost them a chance at coming out of the contest victorious. Furthermore, there’s always the question of if the Celtics could have put Mike Conley or Gobert into early foul trouble, could they have created a bigger cushion heading into the stretch?

Unfortunately, we will never know. But, what we do know is that the Celtics need to smarten up with their offense. We’re no longer calling for them to drive but for them to draw contact on those drives and get some easy looks as a result. There’s a reason some of the best scorers in the league are adept at hunting those calls, and hopefully, games like the one against Utah will act as a wake-up call for some of the Celtics young stars.

From an optimistic standpoint, there is a silver lining. In a restricted area guarded by the Stifle Tower, the Celtics went for 60 points - almost doubling Utah’s effort of 36. For a team that’s struggled for offensive fluidity, especially when penetrating, the performance on the interior is encouraging. If that’s not enough for you, when you tally up both games against the Jazz, the Celtics have now dropped 106 points-in-the-paint on arguably the sternest interior defense in the NBA. Signs of progress are there.

Sure, neither of those point totals account for much, considering both contests saw the Celtics finish on the losing side, but the Jazz have been on a tear this year, and Boston isn’t the only team to bend and ultimately break. If some foul calls had gone their way and the Celtics converted the free-throws, we would have some very different conversations about the team’s direction today.

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