The Boston Celtics’ late-game struggles have been well-documented during an underwhelming first half of the 2020-21 season.
They rank just 24th in fourth quarter scoring, 25th in field goal percentage, and 26th in efficiency beyond the arc. Come crunch time--defined as a game within five points or less with under five minutes remaining--the Celtics net rating ranks 23rd, where they’ve won just 10 of league-high 23 such games, a bottom-10 winning percentage.
So when Boston entered the fourth quarter of its Tuesday night matchup with the LA Clippers down a single point, a victory hardly felt within a realistic reach, even in the absence of Kawhi Leonard, a late scratch due to back spasms, and Marcus Morris who suffered a concussion earlier in the game.
For the Celtics to then outscore LA 29-23 in the final frame to secure a 117-112 victory signaled another step in the right direction. With the win, they returned above .500 and sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.
“We played with more intent to win,” Jaylen Brown said of his team’s efforts. “With a little less complacency. We’re putting together better overall games than we have.”
A large part of Boston’s fourth quarter scoring struggles stems from an overreliance on Brown and Jayson Tatum. It’s tempting to bank on two players both averaging more than 25 points a night, but hero ball has its limitations. That’s why the Celtics have constantly emphasized the need for ball movement across all 48 minutes to keep defenses on their toes.
Of the eight field goals the Celtics converted in the fourth, seven were assists on with just two turnovers. The biggest contributor to these unselfish efforts? Robert Williams III, who dished out three of his career-high-tying four assists when Boston needed them most, including this beautiful one-handed swing pass after LA forced Tatum to give the ball up.
Williams was the primary big in the fourth, playing all but 1:56 of game time. He scored six points and grabbed five rebounds, causing havoc on the roll as a passing threat while using his verticality to soar high above the Clippers’ bigs for several baskets.
“His athleticism getting behind us on the pick and rolls put a lot of pressure on us,” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said of Williams. “We wanted our bigs to be up to take away Kemba and Tatum coming off the pick and roll just, you know, shooting the shot. We did a good job on Little J (Tatum). I thought Kemba had a few shots early that he made. But, like you said, Robert Williams came in the game and his rolling ability kind of changed the game for them.”
Williams was also one of several bench members behind an 11-0 run that helped create the distance Boston used to eventually close out the game. The Timelord got behind LA’s defense for an emphatic lob jam and found Tatum for a reverse layup. Semi Ojeleye, who played all 12 minutes, made a steal that netted Tatum two free throws in transition.
In the entirety of the quarter, four members of the second unit saw playing time. The quartet was a combined plus-23. The four starters — minus Tristan Thompson — were plus-seven.
“I think we’re getting better playing together with that group,” Brad Stevens said of his bench guys. “I think Rob’s threat at the rim really helps that. Those guys can’t just be bystanders. They gotta be aggressive. They’ve gotta be assertive. They can’t play passive. And I thought they backed that up a couple (of) games in a row.”
Defensively, the Celtics did a much better job at containing the two Clippers to exceed 20 points when the fourth quarter rolled around.
Burdened with more of the scoring load in the absence of his All-Star teammate, Paul George shot 10-of-16 for 27 points through the first three quarters. Starting in place of Kawhi, Reggie Jackson poured in 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
With neither Tatum (14 points) nor Brown (18) having a particularly special night, the door was open for LA’s leading scorers to steal a road victory. Instead, Boston put the clamps down as George and Jackson combined for just eight points in the quarter on 3-of-11 shooting.
Paul George finished with 32 points in the Clippers loss vs the Celtics, but went 1-for-11 with 3 points when guarded by Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown pic.twitter.com/EBjrjx59gp— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 3, 2021
Jackson made his only shot attempt in 12 minutes of action. Switched onto and hounded by the likes of Tatum and Brown, George didn’t earn a field goal until the 3:21 mark after putting in his own miss.
“We still have so much to improve but defensively we’ve been better,” Brown said as the Clippers shot just 8-of-22 (36.4 percent) as a team in the fourth. “I think during stretches we’ve taken our foot off the gas and blown 24-point leads, etc. You gotta continue to guard in this league for the entire game. The moment you let up, teams are talented enough to come back. So I think we’re more engaged in that area.”
Don’t look now but the Celtics have now earned three consecutive quality victories to reestablish a spot among the top four of the conference.
Boston managed to win a game without the heroics of their two All-Stars who combined for just 32 points. They received contributions from an often-questioned second unit. Kemba Walker registered his fourth straight 20-point outing with a team-high 25 points on 6-of-12 shooting on threes.
“Just been playing well,” Walker said on what he’s seen during this winning streak. “We’ve been playing tough, not letting little things affect us throughout the course of a game. We’ve been encouraging each other, picking each other up, just being overall great teammates throughout the course of a game. And that’s the difference.”
If the Celtics, winners of these last three all by single digits, have cracked their late-game issues as well, the sky might not be falling in Boston after all.