1. Could the Celtics have beaten the Nets? Yes. Should the Celtics have beaten the Nets? That’s a more complicated answer. On one hand you can say Brooklyn was missing two of their top-three players and Kyrie Irving shot terribly. That would lead to an answer that Boston should have won.
On the other hand, the Celtics were missing two of their top-three players too. While Jayson Tatum shot it well, Boston doesn’t have nearly the depth the Nets have. That makes winning games like this a difficult proposition.
It feels like the right place to be is happy with a split on a Phoenix/Brooklyn back-to-back, while slightly disappointed Boston didn’t get both. Add it a sprinkling of being upset at how the Celtics lost vs that the Celtics lost, and you’re basically there.
2. How did Boston lose? They were sloppy. Some of that came from playing lineups that have somewhere between very little and no time on the court together. That said, pickup teams are thrown together at the playground and show more defensive cohesion than this:
This isn’t a complicated action. Sure, Semi Ojeleye and Romeo Langford haven’t played together much, but they both know they should slide over and pick up a driver/cutter. This was embarrassingly easy for the Nets.
3. We need to have a conversation about Grant Williams. He’s arguably Boston’s most polarizing player. Those who back Williams talk about his basketball IQ, his defense and his developing offensive game. Williams’ detractors talk about his lack of size, his seeming inability to dribble the ball without falling down and his inconsistent offensive production.
Both sides are sort of right. Williams looks like a helpful player a lot of the time. Someone who you can plug in against certain players (slower, physical bigs) and he’ll play well. We saw him do a nice job defensively on Nikola Jokic just a couple of weeks ago. Against many others, Williams is able to hold his own.
In other matchups, Williams really seems to struggle. He’s a mess attacking closeouts. He’s not consistently taking advantage inside when he draws a smaller defender. On defense, Williams is too slow to guard ballhandlers and he’s too small to guard bigger, more athletic players.
One thing Williams can’t do, and we mean ever, is play indecisively. He’s not athletic enough to make up for indecision. This play is a good example. Williams is probably worried if he closes hard that Bruce Brown will drive by him. That leads to Williams sitting in no-man’s land and Brown gets an easy three-pointer:
Just make an actual play and live with the result. Anything is better than making no play at all.
4. Romeo Langford wasn’t drafted for his defense. The hope was that he’d become an above-average defender eventually, but that it would take time. Instead, Langford’s defense has shown to be way ahead of his offense in his young career. When he’s on-ball, Langford uses his size, length and athleticism to bother his man.
When he’s off-ball, Langford looks completely lost. It was so bad in this game that Brad Stevens yanked him 35 seconds into the second half. This isn’t even a good screen from DeAndre Jordan to free up Joe Harris. You can also see that Langford has lost Harris before the halfhearted pick is even set. Worse? Langford just dies on the screen and doesn’t even stay with Jordan as he meanders to the rim for the dunk. Instead, he realizes his mistakes late and compounds things with a foul:
Langford is young and still learning. He hasn’t been helped by having so much time wiped out by injuries either. But these sorts of lapses are why the second-year pro can’t be counted on to contribute in the playoffs.
5. On the flip side, Aaron Nesmith was a positive player in this game. He’s starting to figure things out defensively a bit more. And he’s less tentative with his shot than before. While a long-two isn’t really a desirable outcome, Nesmith faking the shot and stepping into his jumper with confidence is what you like here:
On the above clip, Nesmith could have swung the ball to Payton Pritchard. On the below play, Nesmith doesn’t miss that opportunity. This is good, because Nesmith knows where he wants to go before even catching the ball:
We noted above that Nesmith came on early for Langford in the second half. If the rookie is going to get that early call, he has to deliver. Here’s a confident rip off a crosscourt pass from Jayson Tatum. What’s nice about this play is that Nesmith doesn’t stay stuck in the corner. He lifts to the wing and into Tatum’s vision for this shot:
6. Speaking of Jayson Tatum, he broke out of his shooting slump in a big way. After back-to-back 3-of-17 games, Tatum scored 38 points on 14-of-27 shooting, including 6-of-12 from three. Many of his looks were high-difficulty ones because the defense was honed in on him.
Something Boston needs to do to help Tatum is to make things easier for him to score. In games like this with players out, or in lineups where he’s the focal point, the Celtics make him do too much. They can run more screens and off-ball stuff to get Tatum open. Let him post up some. Run some actions where he’s the screener. Anything to keep Tatum from having to create everything on his own. That’s where the high turnover games are coming from. It’s also wearing Tatum down, which is something Boston can’t afford.
7. Payton Pritchard admitted he hit the rookie wall and hit it hard. In the last couple of weeks, Pritchard has run right through that wall. He had one of his best games against Brooklyn, as he hit several big shots to keep Boston in it.
This shot was big, because it kept the Celtics within striking distance. It was also nice to see Pritchard drill a pull-up vs his standard spot-up jumper:
Of course, his spot-up is pretty good too:
Pritchard doesn’t have that off-the-dribble insane range like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard or Luke Doncic. Maybe that will come, maybe it won’t. But if he can spot-up from 30+ feet away and be a threat, that opens up the floor for the Celtics big time.
8. What ultimately cost Boston this game were three related stats: 19 turnovers, 20 points allowed off turnovers and a 32-3 negative margin in fastbreak points.
Postgame, Brad Stevens seemed at his wits end with the turnovers. Boston has historically been a low-turnover team under Stevens. The Celtics are generally a top-10 team in turnover rate. This year Boston is 19th and barely out of being bottom-10.
In years past, the low turnover rate allowed the Celtics to cobble together good offenses without a ton of offensive talent. Now, the offensive talent is being dragged down by their sloppiness. That sloppiness leads to easy buckets the other way. 20 points off turnovers and a 29-point deficit in fastbreak points is laughably bad in a five-point loss. Clean up even a small portion of that, and Boston wins the game. It’s very un-Celtic-like and has been a persistent problem all season long.
9. What wasn’t un-Celtic-like, outside of the early parts of this season, was the gritty fight to get back in the game. Brooklyn took a 17-point lead at one point in the fourth quarter. This season, Boston has had some tendency to fold in those situations.
Over the last month or so, that’s changed. The Celtics are back to being that “never say die” group that gets back into games on the back of sheer will. Finding that fight again should serve this group well when things get tough in the playoffs.
10. This back-to-back was the last really tough set for Boston. They don’t have any games remaining against any teams in the top-three in either conference. The Celtics have two games left against the Miami Heat and one against the New York Knicks. Those are good opportunities for Boston to take care of their own business for playoff seeding.
Boston weathered the storm and is in pretty good shape, even if they’ve had a couple of disappointing losses this week. If they can get healthy (always an uncertainty), they should have enough time left to climb the standings and find a good rhythm before the playoffs.