It was all going so well! The Boston Celtics had built an 11 point lead against the Portland Trail Blazers and looked to be cruising to victory. The ball was moving, players cutting, and Boston’s defense looked to be a tough nut to crack. And then things changed.
With 7 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Celtics began to stagnate, and the offense became laborious. During those final 7 minutes, the Celtics attempted 10 field goals, 6 of them from deep, missing all of them. In fact, if it wasn’t for their 5-of-6 shooting at the line, Boston wouldn’t have registered a single point to close out the game.
Late game collapses aren’t anything new for this team, in fact, they’ve been a heavy cross to bear all season. But struggling to hit shots against a Portland team that ranks 29th in defensive rating is borderline inexcusable.
“Execution wise at the end of the game, I’ve gotta get us in a better spot to get the shots we want. Not force some turnovers, tough shots, and late shot-clock shots, and find a way to get us the baskets we need,” Ime Udoka said after yet another scoring slump from the Celtics down the stretch.
The confusing part of the Celtics implosion is that throughout those final 7 minutes, the team remained steadfast in their commitment to the team's offensive strategy. Well, the ball movement part of the strategy at least. The issue is, an interior pass isn’t going to cut it at the NBA level, not without some cutting and off-ball screening.
Of course, if you can catch the defense out once they have committed to a double-team or hard hedge, then great. And, in the above clip that’s exactly what we get. Al Horford does a fantastic job of providing some secondary creation out of the short roll, hitting a wide-open Grant Williams in the corner. But, a single interior pass is not always going to cut it, the same way hitting shuffle on Spotify doesn’t always result in a banger, sometimes you’ve got to put in a little extra work.
There are six passes on the above play, but it takes over half of the shot clock before the ball touches the paint. For a Celtics team that ranks 24th in three-point percentage, you would hope they recognize their need for rim pressure, rather than hope they miraculously start hitting threes. Alas, despite some stellar ball movement, the play ends in a last-second shot from Jaylen Brown that ends up getting blocked. And with that block, the Celtics are now at roughly four minutes without a field goal.
“Just find other ways to be effective on the court. Don’t stop shooting, but if something’s not working at the time, find other ways to impact the game,” Tatum explained, when asked about his current shooting slump.
However, Tatum’s response should be relayed to the entire team. Because tons of perimeter play is only beneficial when you have players capable of consistently finishing those play types, which at the moment, the Celtics do not.
It should come as no surprise then, that when the Celtics eventually decided to drive the ball, they found some success. Granted, this play didn’t result in points on the board, due to a foul prior to Brown entering his shooting motion. But the Celtics continue to look their best when getting downhill and pressuring the basket, and it should be their number one option when the basket begins to shrink for their shooters.
Tatum and Brown are strong and athletic, their drives are difficult to contain without giving up a foul, and their movements are hard to follow.
Of course, as with any heartbreaking loss, there’s always a “what if” moment, and for the Trail Blazers game, it’s the above shot from Tatum, after cooking Jusuf Nurkic on a nifty crossover. But, with under 10 seconds on the clock, and a bunch of self-created space, Tatum was right to take the shot. Perhaps, though, kicking the pass to Brown, who could have drove middle for a quick two points, would have been a better option. Hindsight is always 20/20.
The perplexing part of Boston’s struggles is that their shot profile looks tailor-made for this roster. Plenty of open threes, some mid-range attempts, and a heavy dose of rim finishes. But for one reason or another, the Celtics keep dropping the ball down the stretch. Perhaps it’s a mentality thing, or maybe it’s an ego thing, whatever it is, the team needs to figure it out and fast because sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference isn’t reflective of the talent this roster possesses.
Udoka’s scheme is working, in the sense that it’s putting players in position to take high-quality shots, but it’s failing due to a lack of execution and confidence. Until the roster or its rotations are adjusted, what we’re seeing from this team, is likely what we’re going to get. Although, Tatum breaking out of his shooting slump would go a long way to resolving some of the team's recent struggles when closing games out.