Following Boston’s 109-104 loss to the Nets on Friday night, Brad Stevens was blunt about areas of improvement the Celtics needed to address after being outscored 32-3 in fastbreak points.
“We got killed in it,” Stevens said when asked about the transition game. “We have to play with more pace up the floor. We had 19 turnovers and that’s become a problem for our team. Turnovers have to improve. Transition defense has to improve. And I think it will.”
When a head coach makes a statement like that, the subject matter typically becomes a point of emphasis for the following game. Which, for the Celtics, meant a Sunday matinee in Charlotte.
The Hornets’ 17th-ranked pace doesn’t exactly profile them as a run-and-gun team, but top-10 spots in both opponents' turnovers and points in transition are indicative of a bunch that knows when to use its youthful legs.
Boston’s ability to limit Charlotte’s transition game would say a lot about how much was taken over from the loss to Brooklyn. Stevens hoped it would be plenty and the numbers certainly indicate as much. The Celtics registered just 13 turnovers while surrendering 17 fastbreak points. But a look at the tape paints a picture that better aligns with the bitter taste of a 125-104 loss.
“We got out-played, out-coached, out-hustled,” Stevens said after the game. “I thought their speed gave us fits and they really pushed the ball... I thought we were slow to move it and they were fast to move it.”
Charlotte’s typically subpar offense blitzed the Celtics throughout the afternoon. They dished out 39 assists on 47 made field goals, including a season-high-tying 21 makes from beyond the arc.
There’s something to be said in Boston’s defense for a team that just so happened to find its touch on this day, but there were plenty of instances where the Celtics weren’t exactly meeting the Hornets’ energy.
On numerous occasions did Charlotte manage to push the ball all the way to the rim. The first instance came on their second basket of the game, not one minute into the action courtesy of a Terry Rozier pass to Cody Martin.
It was a tough day for every Celtic, none of whom finished the game better than a plus-2 (Evan Fournier). The game was particularly tough on Tristan Thompson in a matchup against the faster, quicker, and more athletic P.J. Washington, who finished with 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting with 12 rebounds and five assists.
Thompson had just five points and four rebounds and was a minus-15 in under 26 minutes. He really struggled in a game that wasn’t built for his strengths. If you go back and rewatch the clip above, you’ll notice how Washington completely outsprints Thompson down the floor, drawing the attention of Jaylen Brown who is then too late to react to Martin streaking down the lane.
An even more embarrassing version of the play took place in the second quarter. It doesn’t count as a transition bucket because it came off a Celtics make, but confusion over matchups allowed Martin to once again coast to the rim, unimpeded for a dunk.
The Hornets love the drive-and-kick game, ranking top-10 in both drives and passes per game. It’s an unselfish mindset that shows itself multiple times within a single possession, continuously bending the defense out of position more and more with each movement before the perfect opportunity reveals itself.
Charlotte took whatever cracks were available in a Celtics defense that was rarely set and busted them wide open for easy baskets.
Early in the fourth quarter, Martin skipped it across the court to Devonte’ Graham. After mistakenly sinking too deep into the paint while getting back, Payton Pritchard lunges a bit too hard on a Graham pump fake, forcing Grant Williams to step up and guard the ball, leaving Washington open in the dunker’s spot for a jam off a flashy pass.
“I felt we were guarding them like we were expecting to play against ourselves,” Stevens said. “Like we were gonna hold it for an extra dribble instead of like BOOM BOOM BOOM. They just flung that thing around.”
The Hornets were without arguably their two best players in Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. They had only won two of their previous eight outings. A struggling undermanned team like this one is bound to search high and low for points wherever they can find them, and Boston opened the door to a path that best suits Charlotte’s core of young athletes.
“In the past, we may have been able to get away with a subpar performance in different games,” Stevens said. “This team hasn’t won a game all year that I can remember where we played subpar. So, that just is a good indicator that we need to be on it. We need to be better. We need to play better.”