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No consistency: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Pelicans

Boston welcomed back fans, but couldn’t find consistency for even a game as they fell back under .500

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

1. It’s a stretch to say Brad Stevens was encouraged by his team’s defense, after they allowed the Pelicans to shoot 50% from the field. But Stevens wasn’t discouraged either. In previous games, Stevens focused on the Celtics lack of effort, especially when it came to closeouts and contesting shots.

New Orleans actually shot better on contested shots in this game than they did uncontested shots. That’s propped up some by Zion Williamson’s finishing inside, but it’s also instructive that Boston’s effort level was good. When the other team makes difficult shots, there isn’t a lot you can do about it.

In a normal game, that sort of effort level will pay off. And most teams don’t have a monster finisher at the rim like Williamson is. So, despite the raw numbers being bad, it’s easy to see why Stevens wasn’t completely down in the dumps about the defense.

2. Jayson Tatum was excellent early, as he scored 16 points in the game’s first nine minutes. Tatum was also very good in the fourth quarter, when he dropped in 14 points. In the middle of the game, Tatum went missing to some extent. The Celtics looked for their offensive leader to carry them, and he did for stretches. It’s those somewhat maddening minutes where he disappeared that become frustrating. That’s when Boston fell behind and was in scramble mode to catch up.

Tatum either needs more from his teammates, or he has to step up and do it himself. Ideally, it will be the first, especially when Jaylen Brown can play. On the nights when it’s the latter, Tatum has to be unselfishly selfish for the good of the team.

3. Luke Kornet played a second strong game off the bench. He seems to have that Daniel Theis-like sense of when to pop and when to roll. Here’s Kornet working pick-and-pop with Marcus Smart:

Later in the half, Kornet was able to work as a roller with Kemba Walker to get an and-1:

In the second half, Kornet showed he can do a little passing out of pick-and-roll plays too. This isn’t an easy pass to make, but he finds Aaron Nesmith for the corner three off the slip:

4. It’s not fair to place blame on only a couple of players for this loss, but if you go that direction, Marcus Smart and Evan Fournier stand out. Let’s start with Smart. What in the world was this?

It was the Pelicans ball before this jump. Brandon Ingram didn’t even jump because had he won the tip, it would have been a shot-clock violation. Smart just lost track of situation here big time.

That play in and of itself is no big deal. It happens to ever player at some point. Well…maybe not that exact play, but you get it.

What was a big deal? Smart went into a funk after that play. He tried to make up for it and bricked a three on the next trip. Then immediately got beaten backdoor by Brandon Ingram for a dunk. And to top it off, Smart got ejected from the game with 24.7 seconds to play.

Smart is the Celtics heart and soul. That’s undeniable. Sometimes he needs to be better about being part of the brain too.

5. As for Evan Fournier…sheesh. 0-for-10 is the worst a player has ever shot the ball in a debut game with a new team. The good news? It can only get better from here! And the guess is that it will. Fournier was clearly pressing after the first couple of misses. Having watched him a lot in Orlando, Fournier missed a ton of shots that he usually buries.

On the re-watch of the game, Fournier seems to already have a good understanding how to play off Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. That could mean Brad Stevens can go back to the double-duos he liked last year, when he almost always had two of Tatum, Walker, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward on the floor. Look for that to develop with this group, with Fournier in place of Hayward.

On defense, Fournier had a fairly decent night. He’ll have to learn to close “hard and high” on three-point shooters, as that’s something Boston does that is very different from Orlando. But he held his own on switches, which is something the Celtics do a lot more than the Magic too. He even managed to block/strip Zion Williamson twice. That’s a good sign for the future.

6. Speaking of Zion Williamson, defending him is akin to being locked in a cage with a grizzly bear and seeing if you can stay alive for a short period of time. Grant Williams got the start and defended the most total possessions against Williamson. Williams held up reasonably well too. Williamson only got off four shots in 13 possessions against Williams.

Marcus Smart had Williamson quite a bit as well, and also held up strongly. We’re going to come back to this next takeaway.

Luke Kornet was the third-most prevalent defender and was more of a mixed bag. He contested shots, but Williamson is just too quick and too strong for Kornet to stop him at the rim. Of course, that’s true of almost any defender in the NBA.

Overall, Boston held Williamson to 10-of-20 from the floor. The defense was actively contesting him in the paint. That’s about the best you can hope for against one of the NBA’s rising stars.

7. Marcus Smart’s defense has slipped noticeably this season, and the Celtics defense has slipped right along with it. Maybe injuries are a factor, but Smart is struggling to keep opposing ballhandlers in front of him. He’s also gambling for steals a lot. And, more than ever, he’s giving himself up and trying to take charges. That last one has always been a thing, but it’s even more prevalent this season.

The gambling and flopping are both signs that Smart maybe doesn’t trust himself to beat the opponent to the spot like he always has. Smart also used to be unscreenable. He’d flip around them, fight through them or sometimes just get skinny and avoid the contact entirely. Now, Smart is regularly getting picked off on screens and calling for switches he never would have called for before.

On the flip side, Smart has held up very well against bigs and done a solid job against big wings. It’s the quicker, shifty ballhandlers who seem to be giving him trouble. Smart isn’t young anymore at age 27, and he’s had a long history of mid-body and leg injuries. If he’s lost some of his quickness, that could be contributing to the struggles on the perimeter.

This could also be a case for Smart returning to a bench role when Jaylen Brown and Evan Fournier are in the lineup together. That would spot his minutes better, and hopefully keep him fresher for a playoff run. However it’s solved for, it’s something Brad Stevens and Smart need to figure out together.

8. It’s going to go unnoticed, because there weren’t a number of eye-popping plays, but Robert Williams has made a case that he should stick as Boston’s starting center. Williams scored seven points, but grabbed 10 rebounds, handed out five assists and blocked three shots.

Williams is arguably the most athletic big Boston has ever had. His second-jump ability is incredible. He’s up, down and up again before most others are even back down. He’s also quick enough to switch onto any opponent and hold his own. If the Celtics are ever able to get their defense back on track, Williams will be a major reason why.

Here’s a good example of Williams’ defensive versatility. He slides down to the baseline to cut of the ballhandler. Then he recovers back to Steven Adams in the middle of the lane. And then he’s quick and long enough to help at the rim by stripping Zion Williamson. This series of plays is something no other Celtics big can do right now:

9. This was a game that screamed for more from Kemba Walker. With Jaylen Brown out, Walker needed to provide secondary scoring behind Jayson Tatum. He did ok, but he could have been a bit more selfish hunting shots. Walker was just 2-of-9 from behind the arc, but passed up some good looks, especially late. He can’t do that and have Boston’s offense continue to flow. It becomes a record scratch and everything has to reset.

The good news is that Walker looked quick and explosive as a finisher around the basket. That continues a string of several performances where he’s looked good physically. Not playing back-to-back games isn’t ideal, but if it has Walker ready for the playoffs, then it’s the right call.

10. Playoffs? Did you say playoffs? Sure did! The Celtics may be struggling to find consistency, but they remain just one game out of homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They still have more home games left this season than just about anybody. They’ve got six more left this week and next.

Should anyone have confidence Boston will rip off a five or six-game win streak? Nope. They haven’t been that team all year. But if it’s ever going to happen, now would be the time. It’s ok to have your life jacket on. Just don’t actually abandon ship. Not just yet.

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