1. We’ll get to everything that happened in the game, including some atrocious officiating, but let’s start with this: this isn’t a bad loss. Brad Stevens said postgame he was really encouraged by a lot of things. On a re-watch, the feels like the right sentiment. Sure, Portland dropped 129 points and shot over 51%, but the Celtics defense wasn’t that bad. The Trail Blazers are just incredibly locked in right now and making crazy shots daily.
On the flip side, it’s not really the time for “moral victories” for Boston. This loss, combined with Heat and Hawks wins, dropped the Celtics to 7th place in the Eastern Conference and into the Play-In Tournament. Boston can still climb out of there, as they have a chance to take care of business against Miami on a two-game set next week.
And avoiding the Play-In Tournament needs to be a priority. Teams that finish in the top-6 in the conference will get 5-6 days of rest and practice time before the playoffs start. That’s huge at the end of a grinding, sprint of a season.
2. There are two parts of this loss that are frustrating for the Celtics. The first is the turnover problem cropped back up. Boston had 18 giveaways, including 11 in the second half. That’s a problem that has been far too present this season.
The second issue was a lack of composure. Boston lost focus after some bad calls. Admittedly, the officiating was terrible in this game. (To be fair, it was bad both ways, but worse for the home team.) But as any coach will say, Brad Stevens included, you have to play through it. Things aren’t always going to go your way in the playoffs either. Losing control of your emotions can be the difference in winning or losing a game. And that can be the difference in winning or losing a series.
3. Let’s get to some of the positives. Evan Fournier broke out with a really good game. He made his first seven shots on the way to an 8-of-10 shooting night for 21 points. Fournier didn’t get behind the arc here, but this step-back is a sign his confidence is there:
Fournier gets himself in a little trouble on this play, but Jaylen Brown makes a great “rescue cut” and Fournier keeps his head long enough to find him:
Having covered hundreds of Fournier’s games in Orlando, this is a signature shot for him. When he gets a smaller defender, he likes to drive and then spin into the floater:
Fournier has shown up on defense for Boston too. Before this clip starts, he’s made a mess of this possession for Portland with a deflection. Then he comes up with the steal and makes a great pass to Jayson Tatum for the runout dunk:
It’s important to note that Fournier spoke at length postgame about how he’s still struggling with the aftereffects of COVID. He said he feels like he has a concussion at times and is struggling to focus. Fournier also said he knows there isn’t time to take games off and said his mental toughness is what will get him through it.
Lastly, Fournier admitted to some sadness about his early tenure in Boston has gone. He said he was so excited to be a part of the Celtics to have a chance to make a deep playoff run and COVID has impact that. He called the situation “heartbreaking”.
4. Aaron Nesmith continued his run of strong play, as he tied his career-high in points of 16 that he set on Friday night. Nesmith has a really good sense of how to balance the floor. He uses that to get open here:
In the Takeaways from the Spurs game, there was a set Boston ran twice to get Nesmith baskets. First, he got a three, then when San Antonio adjusted, Nesmith drove the closeout. Here’s that set again, with a little tweak. Nesmith stops his cut before getting to top of the key. As the defender goes under the screen, Nesmith isn’t quite where the defender ended up and the result is an open shot:
When he first took the job as Celtics coach, on a team devoid of offensive talent, Brad Stevens used to regularly run a similar set to get Avery Bradley open jumpers. It seems he’s broken that back out for Nesmith, as this play is now heavily in the rotation when the rookie is in the game.
5. Let’s quickly touch on some injury updates. Pregame, Brad Stevens said Kemba Walker has done a little more each day. The hope is that he’ll return to practice on Tuesday with a chance to play on Wednesday. That’s some good news.
The other good news is that Jayson Tatum said he was feeling “OK” after his late-game collision with Jaylen Brown. Tatum said he would see how he feels this morning, but that he believed he would be fine.
The bad news? Jaylen Brown hopped/limped off after that collision. Brown has been dealing with a sore knee and a sprained ankle recently, so this latest injury is worrisome. With Boston off Monday, there likely won’t be an update on any of the players’ statuses until Tuesday.
6. Marcus Smart hasn’t shot it well recently, but he’s also not hurt the team by taking wild shots. He’s played within himself and taken the open looks Boston wants him to take. Beyond that, Smart has done an excellent job as a playmaker. He had eight assists against Portland, all of different varieties.
Here’s a gorgeous lob to Robert Williams for the dunk in transition. If you look closely, you can see the moment when Enes Kanter says “Uh oh”:
Smart working out of the post regularly seems to result in something good. This is also great floor balance by Boston. As Robert Williams dives to the rim, the opens up Payton Pritchard for the three:
Here’s Smart to Williams again. Williams knows if he hangs out in the dunker spot, he’ll have chances to make plays:
7. Boston’s bench is really rounding into form. Payton Pritchard seems past the “rookie wall” issues that plagued him about a month ago. The patient approach to let Aaron Nesmith figure out the NBA game has worked. Evan Fournier has shown what he can do when he returns to the bench. And whatever big doesn’t start out of Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams will have an impact.
Those players, plus the regular four starters of Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker will probably be the nine-man playoff rotation. Others might see spot minutes based on situations/matchups, but those nine have earned the bulk of the minutes when they matter.
8. Jayson Tatum had another big scoring night with 33 points on 11-of-19 shooting. What was nice was seeing Tatum trust his teammates to deliver down the stretch. He’s not trying to do it all himself. This is a good look in transition to get Evan Fournier a wide-open corner three:
9. Let’s address the elephant in the room…the officiating in this game was terrible. It was inconsistent and rules applications seemed to be haphazard, at best. Without much effort, these decisions stood out:
-An offensive goaltending call against Aaron Nesmith. This one was probably correct, but it was close.
-A review for a flagrant foul where Marcus Smart got elbowed in the face that was upheld as a common foul. This sort of play has regularly been called a flagrant foul, even if the contact wasn’t malicious in any way.
-An offensive goaltending call against Tristan Thompson where the ball was out of the cylinder because it was off and under the rim.
-Not allowing Brad Stevens to challenge the above call, because he didn’t call timeout in time, despite several Celtics immediately signaling for a timeout and a review.
-Ejecting Marcus Smart for an “unsportsmanlike” blow to the groin of Jusuf Nurkic. Yes, Smart got Nurkic in a sensitive place, but came as Nurkic leveled him with a screen and seemed to be entirely unintentional.
-An offensive foul call where Payton Pritchard was clearly moving and in the “no-charge” circle.
-The last clip above (Tatum to Fournier) has been called an offensive foul on a regular basis, even if it shouldn’t be.
All of those plays are on top of several other mystifying plays where brush contact was called or players were clubbed without a call. It was bad both ways and it’s a terrible look for the NBA.
This was a great game, or was shaping up to be one, and now the story is officiating. The referees aren’t immune from COVID impacts, and it’s harder on them to stay healthy. Their schedule is as demanding, if not more so, than the plays and NBA officials travel commercially vs privately. In part, that’s led to several veteran refs being out this season. The inexperience of the backup officials is showing up in a major way and negatively impacting the game.
10. Moving on…Boston has the next couple of days off. Monday is a much-needed recovery day, especially for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The team will practice on Tuesday. Then the closing schedule is favorable, while also offering opportunities for the Celtics to help themselves. The final seven games are:
at New York
That’s four games against teams that are out, or falling out, of the postseason race. The biggest games are the two home games against Miami. And then, if it matters, Boston and New York will break their 1-1 season tie on the final day of the regular season.
7th place and in the Play-In Tournament isn’t where the Celtics expected to be with a couple of weeks left to go. But they can still pull themselves up and out of it with a good close to the regular season.