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Celtics lack of grit costs them yet again against Mavericks

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Another disjointed performance, with a late rally that ultimately fell short.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like there are three issues with this Celtics team that we rotate through on a month-to-month basis: slow starts, unresponsive stretches to adversity, and fourth quarter implosions.

These ice age quarters aren’t new; they date back to the Isaiah Thomas years. The difference is, Celtics teams of old relished the challenge and rose in stature as the battle got more physical, while the current group folds under pressure.

“We’ve got to find our resolve quicker,” Brad Stevens said when asked about the team’s inability to step up when needed against Dallas. It was another game where the Celtics took an early pummeling, allowing the Dallas Mavericks to drop 64 points in the first half, with Luka Doncic exploding with 89% shooting from the field on nine attempts.

Defensively, the Celtics played relatively well, and the better offense happened to beat them. Far too often, a Maverick would hit a wildly contested three, despite a hand being right in their face. Boston was executing their gameplan:

  • Trapping Doncic after the initial switch
  • Playing tight on Kristaps Porzingis
  • Contesting jumpers with fly-by close-outs without fouling
  • Sinking to crowd the paint following dribble-drive penetration

Here’s where the adversity came in - despite Boston hitting their rotations and forcing complicated looks, Dallas hit bomb after bomb.

Dallas toyed with Boston’s defensive structure all night. Luke Kornet plays drop when defending the pick-and-roll, Jayson Tatum is in a lock-and-trail on Doncic following the screen. The defense cuts off Doncic’s driving lane, so he hits Josh Green on the weak-side corner. Green drives the closeout, force the defense to collapse, and hits Dorian Finney-Smith on the perimeter for three. Celtics defend the perimeter with a fly-by closeout.

“It’s just the same old story - 12-minute droughts because we don’t respond,” Stevens said when asked about the team’s inability to find consistency throughout a complete game.

When defensive possessions aren’t going the Celtics’ way, they revert to quick trigger threes with a steady dose of isolation basketball. The cold stretches and over-reliance on the three-point shot go hand-in-hand and have for multiple years, and it always seems to be when the team is chasing a minuscule deficit. Down six or eight, and it all goes to hell, then before you know it, you’re clawing for air, wondering why you’re down by 20.

There’s no point embracing the three-point revolution on nights where you go 4-of-24 in the first half. At that point, you revert to an interior game after halftime and look to build some momentum.

“We got guys attacking the rim, and we don’t get the calls. When you go inside and take a beating, and you don’t get the calls, it’s tough to keep going in there,” Smart explained when discussing the team’s seemingly poor shot selection.

It’s plays like these that Smart is referring to, where contact is quite clear, but the whistle stays silent. These types of plays usually level out throughout the course of a game, with both team getting questionable no-calls.

According to Cleaning The Glass, 35% of Boston’s offense came at the rim, with the team converting 69% of those attempts. Sure, it may get physical on the interior, but this is the NBA. Showing a reluctance to attack due to a perceived lack of protection from the referee doesn’t fit into the mentality we have come to expect from this team in recent years.

When discussing foul calls, the first thing to note is that Boston ended the game with 23 free-throw attempts, only two less than the Mavericks. So, it’s not like both sides didn’t hear the whistle every time they felt contact.

More importantly, you have to play to your personnel’s strengths, and this is a roster consisting of high-level finishers around the cup. Kemba Walker can cause sleepless nights for opposing teams when he’s allowed to drive at paint defenders.

Tatum’s ability to snake through traffic is artistry, while Brown’s athleticism makes him a formidable assignment. Yet these same players consistently reside beyond the arc during slumps, as Stevens would say, “they’re trying for home runs when they should be hitting singles.”

It was no shock then, that once the Celtics began to rally, it was off the back of dribble-drive penetration. Guys were kicking the ball out to open shooters, driving closeouts, and pressuring the rim. The frustrating part about watching the Celtics find success with this method is that they should have been doing this all game long.

“We need to play better. We need to show up and compete every night with urgency,” Stevens implored as his frustrations with the team’s inability to stay locked in for 48 minutes began to show through.

Limiting an opposing team to 7-of-17 shooting in the final quarter is great, but where was that level of defensive intensity in the second and third quarter? Similarly, hitting 13-of-25 to bring the game within a couple of possessions is great, but had the team stuck to the game plan, they could quite possibly of led at that point.

“We’ve got a lot of skillful guys on this team. For us to be in the position we’re in is definitely frustrating because we don’t have an answer,” Smart explained post-game, as he searched for answers on why the team continually fails to raise their game when the opposition gets hot.

The Celtics are running out of excuses. Their team is slowly getting healthy, with the “core four” now sharing the floor together consistently (with the exceptions of back-to-backs), and fans have returned to the TD Garden (albeit in a limited capacity). The skill level of the team is clearly better than what’s been shown, but the mentality is where the bigger questions lie.

Or, perhaps Stevens was right in his assessment of the team following yesterday’s game. “I’ve been around good teams, been around bad teams, and we’re very average right now.” Talented or average, at this point it doesn’t matter - pride is at stake now. Boston find themselves back in underdog territory, languishing dangerously low in the conference standings for a team that came into the season with aspirations of contending.

Hopefully, the reduced expectations can spur the team on just like its done in the past.