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Boston loses ground in top-6 race: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Heat

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Boston is now two games behind Atlanta and Miami with just four games to play

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

1. There is no room left for moral victories for the Boston Celtics this season. Months ago, we could have left a game like Sunday’s loss to the Miami Heat and said “They fought back and made it close”. Months ago, that would have been a positive.

Not anymore.

Because they’ve got so many bad losses on their ledger this season, the Celtics have no more room for “the old college try”. Losses are losses. Each one drops Boston closer to the Play-In Tournament. Now, the Celtics need help to avoid being 7th or, scarily, worse. The first part of that help has to come from themselves.

2. Everyone from Brad Stevens to every player on the roster knows the team’s bad starts are a problem. They all recognize it. They’ve all repeated it ad nauseum over the last month or so.

The challenge? None of them seem to know what causes it or how to fix it.

Is Jayson Tatum feeling the game out too much early on? Is the team too content to launch jumpers early in game? Is the effort level not there until things get dire?

It’s probably some of all of the above, plus more. One thing is for sure: It’s no way to build a consistent winner.

Having to wage epic comebacks isn’t a formula for success. When it’s a once-and-a-while thing, it’s a sign of a team’s toughness. They never give up. They battle until the end. When it’s almost a game-by-game thing, that’s putting yourself in a place where failure is almost inevitable.

3. Under Brad Stevens, Boston has never finished worse in opponent three-point percentage than 6th. Year after year, the Celtics have defended the arc well:

  • 2013-14 – 34.7% - 5th
  • 2014-15 – 33.6% - 4th
  • 2015-16 – 33.6% - 4th
  • 2016-17 – 33.2% - 2nd
  • 2017-18 – 33.9% - 1st
  • 2018-19 – 34.4% - 6th
  • 2019-20 – 34.0% - 2nd

This season? Boston is allowing opponents to shoot 37.5% from behind the arc. That figure is 22nd in the NBA.

For the other 29 teams, three-point defense is often a matter of luck, mixed in with limiting three-point attempts. Boston had cracked the code on defending the three-pointer better than anyone over the last decade, dating back to the Doc Rivers/Tom Thibodeau led defenses.

The way the Celtics teach it is to close “hard and high”. That means sprinting at shooters and leaping to contest the shot. Yes, this sometimes ends up in fouling shooters, but the results speak for themselves.

To close “hard and high” takes a lot of effort. You have to run out and jump. You can’t lazily take a couple of steps towards the shooter and barely lift your arms. This season has seen far too little of the former and far too much of the latter.

4. Related to the above: Is it truly a lack of effort or is it tired legs? While trying to figure out the Celtics struggles this season, many have asked the same question: How can they be this bad when it’s basically the same group as last year?

There seems to be a few reasons that have led to the poor defense. The constant revolving door of who is in vs out is one. It’s hard to build the sort of connectedness and communication you need in Boston’s switching system, when you have no idea who will play game-to-game.

Another reason is that the Celtics are pretty young. They have used several inexperienced players this year. That shows up more in a season that feature little-to-no practice time. Some of those guys are learning on the fly, which makes mistakes more common than usual.

The last one may truly be tired legs. Yes, this season is a grind for all 30 teams. But look at the standings. Outside of the Denver Nuggets, who are helmed by Nikola Jokic’s MVP season, the Celtics, Heat and Los Angeles Lakers have all struggled. All have battled injuries and fatigue. Maybe that lack of downtime has finally caught up to them.

5. But…if the above is true, it doesn’t really explain things, when Miami seems to be rounding into form as the regular season wraps up. The Heat have gone 7-3 over their last 10 games and are finally getting healthy. They’ve taken a long-term view all season long. Miami has sat guys for lengthy stretches and brought them back only when 100%.

One other thing the Heat did was to not stand pat at the trade deadline. Miami realized fairly early on that their makeup this season wasn’t going to be enough to repeat their run in the bubble. They made a big move for Victor Oladipo that hasn’t panned out, due to Oladipo being unable to get healthy. But the Heat also added Trevor Ariza and Nemanja Bjelica via trade and Dewayne Dedmon in free agency.

The big thing for Miami? They made those moves without sacrificing any of their core pieces. By taking a couple of big swings, the Heat retooled on the fly in-season and it seems to have made all the difference.

6. One positive over the last few games for Boston? Evan Fournier looks great. Fournier was very open about his struggles with COVID and the aftereffects. He also talked about how important it was for him to play and prove himself to his new team. He’s done that with a string of good games. Now, no matter how this season turns out, re-signing Fournier has to be item number one on Danny Ainge’s offseason priority list.

7. Robert Williams gave it a go on Sunday afternoon, but wasn’t able to finish the game. Williams was ruled out for the remainder of the contest at halftime. In his first half minutes, it was clear Williams wasn’t himself. He looked a step slow and didn’t have his usual burst.

As Brad Stevens said, turf toe is a tough injury because it can linger. Stevens added that Williams is probably going to be a game-time decision most nights for the rest of the year.

Williams is a talented young player. He’s got a tremendous package of skills. Unfortunately, he seems to be missing the best ability of all: availability. He’s been in the league for three seasons now and all three have been marred by injuries. That will have to factor in heavily in any rookie scale extension talks this offseason.

8. Once again, the Celtics lack of depth showed up. While players like Luke Kornet, Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye are capable of putting together the occasional nice performance, it’s too much of an ask to rely on them every game.

The wing depth and ballhandler depth has been ok, especially with the emergence of Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard. But Boston’s frontcourt depth is extremely shallow. Behind Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams are some pretty rough options.

Daniel Theis was traded to avoid the luxury tax and to also remove having to re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. While those are understandable reasons, especially avoiding the tax and the repeater tax down the line, it’s had a clear impact on this season. Not having Theis has cost the team repeatedly over the last two months. Only time will tell if that tradeoff was worth it or not.

9. As it stands right now, the Celtics are in the Play-In Tournament. It’s important to not that this year, it is not a single-game play-in scenario. Here’s how the tournament works:

  • 7 hosts 8 – Winner becomes the 7th seed
  • 9 hosts 10 – Winner advances to play the Loser of the 7v8 game.
  • Loser of 7v8 hosts the Winner of 9v10 – Winner becomes the 8th seed.

The teams that miss the playoffs after the tournament, become a part of the NBA Draft Lottery. They’ll slot in wherever they should record-wise at the backend of the lottery.

There are two big reasons to avoid the Play-In Tournament. First, and most obvious, is that your path to the playoffs is far less certain and more difficult.

The second, and arguably more important reason, is that the top six teams will get five-to-six days off before they open the playoffs. That’s huge for rest and preparation reasons. While the Play-In teams battle to get into the playoffs, everyone else is getting healthy and ready. That’s a huge advantage.

10. Despite it all, and despite it being a longshot, Boston still has a chance at climbing out of the Play-In picture. Tuesday’s game against the Miami Heat is a true must-win. If Boston can win that, they’ll be just one game behind Miami, but the Celtics will own the tiebreaker. The Heat have a tougher closing schedule than Boston does, so that should give the Celtics hope. At this point, hope is the best you can ask for.