Recently, the Celtics have found success by penetrating the opposition’s perimeter defense, forcing rotations, and finding the open man. However, Philadelphia had no intention of allowing the Celtics to implement their game plan. The 76ers’ closed off driving lanes, pressured the perimeter, and rotated as though their life depended on it.
Early in the fourth quarter, Mike Gorman was vocal in his praise for Philadelphia’s high-intensity defense: “I don’t think Boston has had three uncontested shots this game.” Fortunately, the Celtics have multiple players who can hit contested shots or use their gravity to generate additional opportunities for those around them.
What the Celtics don’t have is a cerebral playmaker, someone who’s unaffected by intense ball pressure at the point of attack, who can make the correct read with consistency. Lacking a floor general has been something Boston has tried to circumvent by positioning Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as primary ball handlers. Robert Williams has also eased the playmaking pains in recent weeks, too.
However, when faced with top tier opposition, we quickly see one of the most significant flaws in this roster come to the fore front.
“Some careless mistakes, to be honest. I can’t really explain it. At the end of the day, you have to find a way to get your passes through,” Kemba Walker said.
Wing actions like the play above have been part of Boston’s recent resurgence. Give-and-go’s, weaves, dribble hand-offs, back screens - the Celtics have been incredibly creative with opening driving lanes for their titans. Yet, against a 76ers team that started with the same pressure they ended the game with, errant passes littered their offensive maneuvers.
Coach Brad Stevens spoke on the multiple failed passes following the game. “I thought we were loose with the ball on some of them. And on some of them, I think they were great rotations by them.”
Stevens then went on to elaborate further: “We took too much of a gamble, too much of a risk. You have to be sure with the ball against them. Otherwise, they get running in transition, and in the half court, they’re hard enough to stop, but if you let them get run outs, they’re impossible (to stop).”
Plays like the one above are demoralizing. Good ball movement leads to penetration, then a pass you’ve consistently made throughout the season is picked off by a help defender. It’s no wonder the Celtics reverted to their isolation heavy pick-and-roll offense as the game wore on.
Unsurprisingly, Boston’s turnover woes isn’t a new development against this Philadelphia team. According to Stat Muse, in their three meetings this season, Boston has turned the ball over 47 times, an average of 15.6 fumbles per game.
If we want to shed even further light on Boston’s struggles, Cleaning The Glass’ tracking data tells us that Boston turned the ball over on 24.7% of their total possessions - almost one in four trips down the court.
“We had 20 or some odd turnovers. It’s hard to have that many turnovers and beat a team like that,” Jayson Tatum lamented.
When the Sixers weren’t pressuring the ball handler, they coaxed the Celtics to drive before pinching their wings and flooding the ball handlers space to force accessible pluck opportunities:
Philadelpia hedges the original pick-and-roll, allowing Grant Williams to pop into space on the perimeter. Brown feeds Williams to begin a get action (where a player feeds the big before coming to get the ball in a subsequent dribble-handoff), Williams short rolls, and Brown tries a pocket pass.
Philadelphia’s defense had read the scouting report. Boston likes to run these types of actions from the slot to create shooting opportunities or space for the big in the mid-range area. By hedging the initial screening action and then doing the same on the DHO, the 76ers closed down by opportunities in quick succession.
“We kind of misread some things,” Kemba Walker said when discussing some of the more avoidable turnovers.
Failing to take care of the ball isn’t a new phenomenon for the Celtics this season; they’re 15-14 when giving up 12 or more turnovers and 9-7 when the turnover amount increases to 15 or more. Furthermore, the 20 turnovers against Philadelphia is their second highest total of the season, only topped by their capitulation against the Washington Wizards in early January.
This game was Boston’s third of the season with 19 or more fumbles, and with more than twenty games of the regular season left to go, there’s a chance more of these performances could be on the horizon. Perhaps Evan Fournier is the additional ball handler Boston needs, and their improved ball movement coinciding with his arrival into the rotation is more than just coincidence. Unfortunately, he could be lost for a week in the league’s health and safety protocols.
The Celtics will look to get back to winning ways against the New York Knicks on the second half of Boston’s latest back-to-back, and one would hope there’s an onus on keeping the ball. To wit, Kemba Walker will be sitting out tonight with his regularly scheduled off day.