You’d be lying if you said that in your sporting life, you haven’t entered a game taking a team lightly and had it come back to bite you. Intramural, rec league, semi-pro — it doesn’t matter the level. You’ve done it. And no harm, no foul! Everybody does! Just ask the Utah Jazz, who are 44-14 this season against 28 NBA teams, and 0-3 against the 19-44 Minnesota Timberwolves, who they’ve sleepwalked against three times and directly reaped what they elected to sow.
You could also ask the Boston Celtics, who quite obviously viewed Tuesday night’s home matchup with the abysmal Oklahoma City Thunder as target practice. If the results are merely coincidental and somehow not the consequence of a lamentable strategy (or lack thereof), then pardon my smear campaign.
As I watched what I thought to be the travesty that was last night’s performance unfold, it felt like the Celtics were lackadaisical on defense, allowing paint penetration and inside-out creation at every turn. And on offense, it appeared as though they were going through the motions, chucking up threes at an inordinate rate, and failing to crash the boards with any gusto. But my eyes must have been playing tricks on me. This was just an off night. These things happen.
Although now that I use those same eyes to check the box score, it appears there may be some truth to those negative observations. Indeed, they were launching triples as if the team’s collective life depended on it. If that were the case, the NBA would have one less team today. Boston shot 49 threes last night, making a meager 11 — that’s good (or bad) for 22 percent — and accounting for 51 percent of their total attempts. That number doesn’t come close to cracking Statmuse’s list of the 30 teams in league history to attempt the most three-pointers in a single game, but no team on that list shot worse than 28 percent.
Making matters worse is the fact that last night’s three-point meltdown is indicative of a larger trend, one that has been particularly prevalent since the trade deadline (March 25). For whatever reason, ridding themselves of Daniel Theis, Javonte Green, and Jeff Teague, coupled with the additions of Evan Fournier and Luke Kornet seems to have caused a switch to flip in terms of shot selection. Per the NBA’s tracking data, Boston attempted 33.8 threes per game prior to the deadline, the 20th-most in the league, good for a top-ten shooting percentage (37.7). Since the deadline, they’ve upped their per game attempts to 40, the second-most in the league, and dropped to 17th in shooting percentage.
That this newfound modus operandi became evident precisely after the deadline could be as fluky as it sounds. But the way the main rotation is now structured — no Theis means almost no midrange game from a big, other than Kornet’s one or two jumpers per night — is directly reflected in the evolving approach to shot-by-location distribution. That approach, notably, is failing. The Celtics have now lost three straight games, two of which they simply could not afford to lose, and in each of those games, they’ve shot more than 41 attempts (41 against Charlotte, and 42 against Brooklyn). Last night’s showing was not only an all-time low, but a performance that should direct Stevens and Co. back to the drawing board.
At the end of the day, though, it may come down to the thing Boston most notably lacked against a significantly lesser opponent: effort. “F---, we gotta play with more of a sense of urgency,” Jaylen Brown said after the game. “Tonight, I feel like we didn’t have the sense of urgency that we needed across the board. And a team that has some young, talented players came ready to play and we got beat.”
Not only did the Celtics get beat by a team that came ready to play, but they beat themselves by approaching said opponent as though they’d be a cakewalk. Marcus Smart looked to be trotting into ill-advised pull-ups early in the shot clock as though his main goal was to see how far his range could extend; he finished the night 1-for-10 from outside. Evan Fournier — back from a long stint in the league’s health and safety protocols — has been itching to find his shot, but you can only do that so much in an actual game. I’ve quoted my old high school coach before, the one who would tell us once a day that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Evan Fournier is really trying, and in turn, approaching insanity. His trial-and-error period is costing his team points and possessions.
Three-point shooting wasn’t the only reason the Celtics lost, and it’d be naive to say so. For one, Boston was outrebounded by 12, 51-39; that Robert Williams was absent for the seventh-straight game is no doubt a scale tipper, but both Tristan Thompson and Luke Kornet are capable (and, it’s worth mentioning, tall). It was the effort that didn’t seem to be there. Even if the Celtics did happen to outplay the Thunder in certain statistical areas, those realms make a negligible difference in the long run even when some semblance of effort is discernible.
The Celtics’ fate come playoff time will hang in the balance if they continue to be repeat offenders in the effort department. It’ll be especially destructive if they continue to fall closer to the play-in tournament cutoff that, as it stands is nipping at their heels. “We’ve got to come and have some pride and play with some urgency,” Brown continued. “I didn’t think tonight we played with urgency, especially after a tough game against Charlotte two days where we got our ass kicked, everybody should’ve came ready to play with more urgency and we didn’t for whatever reason.”
“For whatever reason” won’t cut it anymore. There are plenty of reasons, and they all need swift fixing. Critics of the Celtics this season have walked back some of their opinions on the team’s biggest shortcomings due to the overwhelming number of player games Boston has lost to COVID/health and safety protocols, or because this season has generally been a weird one. But to say this team will be fine once the playoffs start is to literally judge a book by its cover. As long as this group is launching 49 threes and going through the motions, thus losing to a team that is actively trying to lose in order to improve their draft position, they can’t be trusted.
Last night’s loss is just a small part of a larger case against trusting these Celtics. That result, among many others, is why they are rapidly approaching the point when it will be too late for them to do anything to change anyone’s mind.