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Anatomy of a 20-point deficit

Diving deep on games when the Celtics trailed by at least 20 points.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

I was struck by a Sean Grande stat that summed up this season remarkably well. The Celtics have had 13 games where they’ve trailed by 20 points or more this season. Compare that to just 4 from the previous year.

It got me to thinking, what caused those huge deficits? Did the team come back and compete? Were there missing players? Weird start times? Back-to-backs? Any glaring stat lines?

Almost half of the games ended up competitive

Let’s start with the outcomes. Four of the thirteen games were legit let-go-of-the-rope blowouts that ended with 20-point deficits. Three of them were more garden variety blowouts where the team at least got it under 20 (but still double digit losses).

Here’s the thing though: a whopping 5 of the games were decided by single digits and of course 1 game ended up as an overtime victory (and that 32-point deficit was our 2nd largest of the year).

Missing in Action

As you might expect, each of the games featured at least one player missing from the normal rotation. In six of the games, the Celtics were missing two rotation guys. (Note: for the purpose of this drill I did not consider Romeo Langford as part of the normal rotation)

Kemba Walker was missing for 5 of the games. Robert Williams was missing for 4. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Tristan Thompson were each missing for 2. Jayson Tatum and Evan Fournier each missed one.

Holidays were not kind

Oddly enough, the Celtics did not enjoy the holidays. They had 20-point deficits (and losses) on Christmas Day, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day.

Early start times were not kind

Five of the games started early. Four of them were 1:00 pm start times and the other was 5 pm on Christmas Day.

Back-to-backs contributed

Three of the games were on the second game of a back-to-back. Oddly enough, one of them was the first game of a back-to-back.

Location didn’t matter

Six of the games were at home and 7 were on the road.

Months didn’t matter

There was one game in December, 2 in January, 2 in February, 3 in March, 3 in April, and 2 in May (so far).

Team stats

The team’s averages were down across the board compared to regular season results.

  • Field goal % was 46.9% for the year, 44.2% in losses, 42.8% in 20-point deficits
  • 3pt % was 37.6% for the year, 33.6% in losses, 30.8% in 20-point deficits
  • Free throw % was 78.2% for the year, 76.4% in losses, 75.8% in 20-point deficits
  • Turnovers were at 13.5 for the year, 13.4 in losses, 13.8 in 20-point deficits
  • Assists were at 23.5 for the year, 21.3 in losses, 20.8 in 20-point deficits

Box scores eye test

I scanned through the box scores to see if anything was glaring but I didn’t see any repeating patterns that we didn’t see all season long. It was the stars carrying the load offensively and the bench not doing that much.


This was a weirdly satisfying analysis. It confirms that back-to-backs played a part in this season’s demise. It confirms that missing rotation players was huge. It also shows that at least in 6 of the games the team rallied and made a game of it or won. So while “slow starts” were of course a huge issue all season, the team didn’t often give up on a game.

It makes me wonder: How often would these games have been closer in a “normal” year? How many losses could have been wins?

Next year should be closer to “normal,” with fewer back-to-backs, more practice time, and hopefully no games lost due to COVID or protocols. The Celtics will need to add depth to the bench. The young players will be a year older and it might be nice to add some more (good) experienced players to reduce some of the bench volatility.

So that’s what I got from it. You are welcome to do your own research and let me know if there’s anything that I missed.

A big thank you to Sean Grande who provided the dates for these games. Listed below.

Four 20-point deficits all of last’s this year...BIGGEST DEFICIT

37 - VS. NEW YORK – JANUARY 17, 2021

32 - VS. SAN ANTONIO – APRIL 30, 2021* (W)

28 - VS. BROOKLYN – DECEMBER 25, 2020

27 - @ ATLANTA – FEBRUARY 24, 2021

26 - VS. MIAMI – MAY 9, 2021

25 - @ WASHINGTON – FEBRUARY 14, 2021

25 - @ MILWAUKEE – MARCH 24, 2021

24 - @ CHARLOTTE – APRIL 25, 2021

23 - VS. DALLAS – MARCH 31, 2021

22 - @ CHICAGO – MAY 7, 2021

21 - @ DETROIT– JANUARY 1, 2021

21 - @ CLEVELAND – MARCH 17, 2021


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