As a matter of fact: the Celtics never made another field goal. The Blazers finished the game on a 20-5 run to take the road victory.
Boston shot 0-for-9 over the final 7:19, including 0-for-6 from behind the arc. The only points the Celtics scored were at the free throw line.
Boston has had collapses before, but this one was something else. To not score against one of the worst defenses in the NBA for over seven minutes in the fourth quarter is a whole new level of bad.
2. That make matters worse, two defensive blunders cost the Celtics as much as anything they did (didn’t do?) on offense. There’s no reason for Jaylen Brown to leave Robert Covington in the strongside corner like this. You don’t help off a bad shooter in this way, and you certainly don’t help off a good shooter like this:
3. Late-game rebounding continues to be a major issue for the Celtics. There are four Boston players in position here, but Jusuf Nurkic collects the ball and drops in the putback that gave Portland the lead for good:
4. Jayson Tatum had been getting downhill and into the paint all game long. The Trail Blazers had no one who could contain him off the dribble. Tatum has Jusuf Nurkic off-balance here. There is more than enough time to drive the ball, as Tatum had done all night. For whatever reason, he went to the step-back and that miss was the game for the Celtics:
5. There’s no silver bullet here. Not scoring for nearly seven minutes is an issue. Ime Udoka played some regrettable lineup combos at different points in the game. Jaylen Brown was a complete mess when he got back in during the fourth quarter. Boston couldn’t rebound in a key spot, yet again. Jayson Tatum took that very questionable shot at the end.
It’s not all bad. Grant Williams played really well off the bench. Romeo Langford had one of the best two-way games of his career. Tatum was great until that final stretch, even carrying the load in a Point-Tatum role for long periods of the game.
But it’s another loss. And the Celtics are back under .500 on the season. It’s not even two steps forward, one step back anymore. It’s become one step forward, one step back or one step forward, two steps back. That’s kept Boston at .500 all season long, and despite some signs of good, it doesn’t seem likely to change.
For the second half of the Takeaways, we’re going to do some quick hit thoughts on things that have to change for Boston to redeem this season going forward.
1. Stop starting Al Horford when Marcus Smart gets back: This one is pretty simple. Boston struggles for backup minutes at the five. Enes Freedom isn’t the answer except for spot minutes or in very, very specific matchups.
When Marcus Smart returns, it would be best to go with a starting group of Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Grant Williams is playing well enough and, more importantly, shooting well enough, that he should start. That will give the Celtics spacing and some lineup balance in the opening group.
On the second unit, Horford can pair with Dennis Schroder (more on that in a minute) and Josh Richardson to give Boston balance and depth. Horford and Schroder have done a good job in the two-man game this season. They should be able to do some real damage against reserve groups, for however long he remains with the Celtics.
2. On that note: It’s time to trade Dennis Schroder. Not because of his play, even if his style does infuriate this writer at times. But Schroder has no real future in Boston. He’s played too well to return on the minimal raise the Celtics can give him. At this point, some point guard-needy team, or a team in need of bench scoring, will likely offer Schroder more than the Celtics can this summer.
A Schroder trade will return an asset or two, even if they are relatively minor ones. But the real thing trading Schroder will do is open up minutes for younger players.
Payton Pritchard is the most obvious beneficiary. He would get all of the backup point guard minutes behind Marcus Smart. By the end of the season, with plenty of playing time, Boston will have a better idea of Pritchard’s potential moving forward.
The secondary beneficiaries are Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith. Ime Udoka showed signs of moving on from the Schroder-Smart combination before Smart got hurt, but if Schroder is gone, it’s not even a possibility. That opens up those minutes for Langford or Nesmith to play, instead of scrapping for whatever precious minutes remain behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
3. Semi-related to the above: Start lessening the minutes load on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum is at a career-high 36.8 minutes per game. And this is after playing basketball nearly non-stop since the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Tatum says he feels fine and that he wants to play, but sometimes you need to save players from themselves. And that’s true, no matter if they like it or not.
Brown is also at a career-high at 34.8 minutes per game. He’s had some injury issues for three straight seasons. He could also benefit from a reduced workload.
Will this lead to more wins? Probably not. But it’s not like Boston is winning at any sort of great clip as it is. It’s time to focus a little less on this season, and a little more on the bigger picture.
4. As far as that bigger picture goes, Ime Udoka should focus on making sure that the “kids” are playing as much as they can. Robert Williams is already carrying about as much as he can. But the other four guys should all have bigger roles. It’s time to find out what Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams can do. Sink or swim. Again: it’s not like there’s a whole more sinking to be done.
5. Lastly, no one on the roster should be untouchable in trade. It would take a monster, even insane, offer to get Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. They aren’t the problem. It’s almost everything around them that has failed to come together as hoped for. They have their flaws, but those aren’t anything you can’t work around with talented players who haven’t even hit their primes.
The veterans should all be on the table approaching the deadline. Same with the kids. None of them, minus Robert Williams, have shown that they can’t be moved. Not saying they have to be traded, but if the right deal comes along, great.
If a deal can deliver a player who helps now, but can also help down the line, that’s good. If it’s a deal more designed on the future only, that’s fine too. But the one thing that can’t happen is just standing pat.
This isn’t to say the Celtics should tank. They’ve already won too many games for that to be an overly viable strategy. But what they have done to this point isn’t working out great either. At least moving in this direction rebalances priorities towards the future. Whatever happens this year, happens. It’s time to focus on the future. That should be the goal for the remainder of this season.