For all the concern about stopping Brooklyn’s potent offense heading into Game 1, it was the Celtics offense that sputtered in the 104-93 loss in their first round opener against the Nets. Backed by a sturdy defense that seems to have finally found its resolve late in the season, Boston no doubt has the firepower to stick around with league’s most efficient offense this season, but they’ll have to make tweaks heading into Tuesday’s Game 2.
“Scoring in the 90’s isn’t going to be good enough. We gotta do a better job attacking them with all the switching and being a little more purposeful with that,” Brad Stevens said after the Celtics only mustered 19 assists on 31-for-84 shooting from the floor in Game 1.
As a whole, Boston registered only 30 potential assists, the lowest total for any team during the opening weekend of the NBA Playoffs; the Nets had 18 assists on 32 potential passes. However, Brooklyn can afford to be so ISO-heavy with their trio of future Hall of Famers.
But it’s not like Boston is without offensive talent, despite playing this post season without Jaylen Brown and his nearly 25 points and 4 assists a night. They finished tenth in the league in offensive efficiency (113.1 points per 100 possessions compared to Brooklyn’s 117.3 mark) with four players that are capable of putting up 20-plus points a night.
“We can attack it better. We can probably do some things that we did midseason that we’ll go back to and look at,” Stevens elaborated. “We’re going to have to get more off cutting, get more off quicker decisions, quicker movement.”
Case in point, in Boston’s final regular season game in Brooklyn a month ago, the Celtics were without Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Robert Williams (Harden was also unavailable). They’d eventually lose 109-104, but the game looked dramatically different because they had to play dramatically different with key offensive weapons sidelined. Tatum went off 38 points on 14-for-27 shooting from the field, but with such a depleted roster, the Celtics had to generate opportunities with ball movement and more action. On that night, they had 21 assists on 44 potential.
Like he was on Saturday night, Jayson Tatum is the primary playmaker here. After he picks up his dribble, the ball just moves. Because of Evan Fournier’s shooting ability in the corner, Landry Shamet plays up on the catch and Fournier immediately drives the ball to the paint. It’s that pace and quick decision-making that can manipulate Brooklyn’s defense for the remainder of the series. Fournier isn’t exactly a huge threat to get to the rim, but his drive shrinks the defense enough to free up Smart for a wide open 3. It’s less about Landry necessarily being a mismatch for Fournier and more so about Fournier taking advantage of the Landry’s coverage.
Don’t expect Boston to not continue to hunt mismatches completely though. Just as Brooklyn punished Tristan Thompson whenever he switched on to Durant or Harden, the Celtics did the same against Blake Griffin. Walker, Tatum, and Smart were a combined 4-of-8 against the lead-footed Griffin, dished out three assists, and went to the line twice. It was enough for Steve Nash to play Jeff Green nearly exclusively in the front court in the fourth quarter.
However, how Boston attacks those mismatches will make a difference. Too many times in Game 1, the Celtics settled for long threes without challenging Brooklyn’s interior.
Consider Tatum’s aggressiveness in the first half. Getting a mismatch on Griffin wasn’t enough. Drawing a second help defender set up easy baskets for Robert Williams and Marcus Smart.
“We’ve got to move the ball and move bodies better. And then we have to read the overhelp at the end of plays better. It’s easier said than done. They’ve got a long, athletic guys. I don’t think there’s a ton of people you necessarily want to isolate. There’s a lot of good, prideful, good athletes, individual defenders. I think what you gotta do is move the ball side-to-side, cut with pace, and do a little bit more of that obviously than we did (in Game 1),” Stevens said after a brief practice on Sunday.
Per the league’s tracking statistics from Game 1, Boston shot 12-for-37 on contested field goals. Brooklyn made a whopping 19-for-41. The Nets are longer and better tough shot-makers. It’s unlikely that the Celtics could outdo them there, but if they can generate better, more open looks, they could conceivably even up the series heading back to TD Garden.