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Time running out: 10 takeaways from Celtics-Mavericks

“We’re very average now, because we don’t do it every night.”

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Wednesday’s 113-108 Mavericks win marked a continuation of the Celtics, floundering for most of the game while flashing potential during late glimmers of hope that ultimately fall short. Similar to Boston’s first loss to Dallas, the Celtics pulled from down 23 points on a 34-19 run to within two points late with a real chance to steal a win and lay the groundwork for internal confidence. Instead, the team sounded unsure they can turn the season around after.

“We just let go,” Brad Stevens said. “We have to figure some things out, we’ve got to find some resolve quicker ... they took us out of it, because that’s probably our reputation: to not respond for 10-12 minutes ... maybe I got to use every timeout, maybe I got to shuffle sub, but it’s a team that I’m coaching, so it should all fall on me.”

2. Jayson Tatum started the game 1-of-6 from the field, attacking Dallas’ defense head-on while Kristaps Porzingis and others collapsed to seal him away from the paint. Tatum attacked, determined to break the interior alone with dribble drives and pull-up jumpers, but got lured into taking difficult shots that derailed the Celtics’ offense early while teammates stood around. Dare I say it looked like Kyrie Irving against Milwaukee in 2019?

Tatum battled efficiency woes during a 10-of-24 night, with 1-of-8 shooting behind the arc, while matching three assists with three turnovers. Boston’s ball control and passing issues led to a 64-45 halftime deficit and Tatum’s stat line was buoyed by a late string of Dallas turnovers that led to open breakaway looks. Tatum missed one at the rim anyway that Marcus Smart needed to clean up to reach within 109-107 late.

Tatum ranks 110th in the NBA with a 19.7 assist percentage despite ranking 39th with 4.8 minutes of ball time per game. That indicates he has to share facilitating duties with Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart and now Evan Fournier. It also points toward Tatum being accountable, along with Walker (5.8 minutes), for Boston’s offense not popping more. He now ranks ninth in percentage of possessions played in isolation (18.7%) while shooting 35% in those sets and ranking in the 42nd percentile of points per possession (0.84).

The Celtics need more from Tatum defensively too, as he’s regressed to a net +0 per 100 possessions after Boston got outscored by a team-high 19 points with Tatum on the floor Wednesday. His defense formerly made him one of the league’s best +/- players.

Tatum turned it up late on that end with separate strips on Luka Doncic and Josh Richardson that led to fast break scores, but it happened too late. The C’s benefit from Tatum progressing as a ball-handler long-term. In the short-term, it would be more beneficial to allow others like Evan Fournier and Smart to take the facilitating load from him.

3. Fournier arrived to bolster the Celtics offense and inexplicably received 1.2 minutes per game of ball time, in line with Robert Williams III’s share, during his first two games with Boston. Fournier is many things as a player. He is not a floating, catch-and-shoot, off-ball player and that role in his first two C’s games led to him shooting 3-of-16 with six points in his first 64 minutes with the team.

Boston may be slowly integrating Fournier, but as with many Celtics trends time is running out for that to change. There is reason for concern since it is uncertain where Fournier finds ball time with Walker, Brown and Tatum staggering into second units while Smart fills whatever time is left over.

Fournier shot over 40% from three on pull-up threes and 36% in catch-and-shoot situations with the Magic. The Celtics will not receive what they traded for if they don’t begin empowering him. The impending free agent could also look elsewhere in the offseason for more opportunity like his comparable predecessor — Gordon Hayward.

Fortunately for Boston, Fournier has defended to make up for his quiet offense. Doncic scorched him off the dribble and won an angle around him when Fournier went through the screen on an early pick-and-roll into a floater. After that, Fournier’s ability to get through Dallas’ nonstop screens in tandem with Smart led to better Celtics defensive returns, until a small ball lineup with them, Kemba Walker, and the Jays surged Boston within inches of victory with tough stops late.

Fournier proved to be a strong defender with size and length to be able to post a near-perfect performance in his own end against a lethal Mavericks offense. That’s encouraging, but Stevens will need to weigh the defensive chemistry he could share with the starters alongside the ability to put the ball in his hands.

4. Critics, including myself, will wonder if swapping Smart’s ball-handling for Fournier’s while adding Aaron Gordon as a defensive wing alongside the Jays would’ve proved prudent cap management and more comfortable for the team in the long term. We’ll never know if it was possible, though Danny Ainge reportedly assured Smart he was not in trade talks. The Nuggets have outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions with Gordon on the floor, posting a 113 defensive rating, in wins over Atlanta and Philadelphia.

5. A startling trend, out of line with previous Celtics teams, remains their propensity to allow the three-point shot. Doncic, a 37.7% three-point shooter this year, converted 7-of-11 from outside against Boston on Wednesday, including a step back from near half court on a second chance opportunity gained over the Celtics’ small ball lineup on his initial miss. That make, along with 19-of-39 shooting from three as a team, secured victory for Dallas. The Celtics have allowed opponents to shoot 37.3% (19th) from three, which would mark the franchise’s first season outside the top-10 in NBA three-point defense since 2006-07.

6. The Celtics rank 14th in turnovers committed and 14th in turnovers forced, forcing slightly more than they commit (13.8-14.4). Boston solidified a 20-9 advantage in the loss, turning over Doncic eight times and riding two steals, two shot clock violations, and a charge take to a late nine-point turnaround down by 11 with eight minutes left. The Mavericks still outscored the Celtics 23-10 after turnovers, thanks to plays where Boston did not fully commit to transition defense and made loose ball blunders. The Celtics also continued to frantically foul (19 personals).

7. The most troubling takeaway was more internal confusion in response to Stevens’ criticism about the team’s inconsistency. Brown attacked pessimism toward the team as unhelpful, as Boston sits outside of a bye for the play-in round and lined up against a Hawks team that won the season series and blew Boston out in the final game. Smart could not identify why the Celtics have not been better defensively. They sounded as low as they have from a morale standpoint all season, Brown burying his head in his fist, as the sense that time is running out to solve their array of problems emerges.

“I don’t know what you guys want me to say,” Brown said. “To be honest, I think everything has a factor that’s involved. I don’t know.”

8. Robert Williams III sat with a non-COVID illness as Stevens announced the Celtics are taking Tristan Thompson’s recovery in COVID protocol slowly. That left Boston with Moe Wagner, who struggled fouling three times in 16 minutes with two points in the spot start.

Luke Kornet missed both of his pick-and-pop three point attempts, while Stevens stayed away from small ball with Grant Williams and those units in general until late, worried about Dallas’ size between Maxi Kleber and Porzingis.

The Celtics’ issues go beyond their injuries and COVID woes. The roster is built so thin — particularly now at center after the Daniel Theis departure — that Kemba Walker sit-outs and any missed games by key rotation players signal an automatic loss.

“Throwing Moe Wagner into the start was not fair to Moe Wagner,” Stevens said. “I don’t think he started awful. I thought we did some good things early, we did miss some shots, but we were flying around. We were playing the right way, but when adversity hits we nose dive ... it’s not, to me, as much about who starts, who ends, it’s about how are we going to play when it gets tough, because it always gets tough.”

9. Stevens said he transitioned to small ball late to have the most firepower on the floor, and the starters with Fournier finished with a +0 net rating, with an 81 offensive and defensive rating in six minutes as he saw them hurt on the boards. The best lineups of the night involved Kornet with Payton Pritchard and Fournier off the bench. Rotations remain in flux, especially as Stevens weighs whether Williams III thrives more with the starters or bench.

10. “We’re very average right now,” Stevens said.

The Celtics rank eighth in the East, only two games behind fourth, but behind four teams in the eighth spot. If the playoffs started today they would be in the play-in tournament, while the Raptors, Wizards, and Cavaliers sit fewer than 6.0 games behind. Boston has started its seven-game home stand 0-2, with the Rockets ahead on Friday and Gordon Hayward’s return on Sunday. There are 24 games left to integrate Fournier, inspire hope, and avoid the play-in.

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