My Fanposts are usually pretty optimistic. I decided pretty early on that I cared more about progress than wins this season, but this team is still incredibly frustrating to watch. They’re underachieving, and while individual players have improved the team is making the same mistakes over and over again. What follows are the things that make me yell, or want to yell, at my TV during Celtics games. Some of these points have been addressed in recent Celticsblog pieces, but I’m including them anyway.
1- Not using Rob enough. On NYE Rob had maybe the best game of his career. He was a menace on D and often a hub on offense. The Suns were missing their top 2 bigs, but we’ve seen appearances from the Dime Lord before. Jaylen and Jayson have been almost unstoppable lately when they are decisive off the catch, or cutting to the rim. Rob can find them and help create good opportunities for those guys, but he doesn’t gets the chance frequently enough.
There isn’t another player in the world like Rob. He has some things in common with players like Bam, a switchable big who can pass, or Jarrett Allen, a young 2 way vertical threat, but no player in the NBA combines Rob’s passing skills and threat as a vertical spacer on offense with his rim protection and switch-ability on defense. Rob has a 74% true shooting percentage, despite taking few free throws and no 3s, and is only taking 5.9 shots per game. That’s criminal. After the win against the Suns Ime talked about expanding Rob’s role. Great, but let’s actually see it. He picked the Suns apart, and then that game plan went away? Why? Free Rob. It could be the player capable of "unlocking" the Celtics is already on the team wearing number 44.
2- Bonkers lineups. Dennis Schroder is a good player. He’s a tough defender for his size, and he brings an offensive spark off the bench. He can get to the rim and finish, and create for other guys. He’s not good off ball or as a spot up shooter. He’s not a great "connector" either. That’s his role when he’s on the floor with the Jays and/or Smart. It’s great to have him out there when the team needs more creation, but he wasn’t helping at all down the stretch against the Knicks playing alongside the core 4. He’s not a fit with that group, so please stop playing him with them for extended minutes.
As touched on earlier by staff writer Jack Simone Horford has no business starting for this team. He is still a good player, but he slows them down, he can’t provide spacing, and his skillset has too much overlap with Rob’s. The Celtics have an elite shooter who plays the 4 ON THE ROSTER. Grant Williams has a lot of improving left to do, but he’s a much better fit with the core 4 than Horford. Grant has been an elite spot up shooter this season. Horford has been awful despite regularly getting wide open looks because nobody feels the need to contest his attempts. Grant isn’t the passer or defender that Horford is, but he’s not that far off either. I understand that Grant makes more dumb mistakes, but that’s fine. He’s 23. He needs to make mistakes. The Cs are a team that should be focused on the future and not this year. They are a team who is desperate for shooting in the starting lineup. That they are starting a 35 year old shooting under 28% from 3 over a 23 year old shooting over 42% from 3 is insane. It’s indicative of a stubborn coaching staff who are too focused on this season, the comfort of veterans, and unwilling to try new things. This is a Doc Rivers type of coaching job, and Doc has coached some of the most underachieving teams of the last decade. It might be time for Brad to start ripping the security blankets away from Ime. The Celtics aren’t going to improve by being a better version of what they are. They need to reinvent their system and rotations. This isn’t the time to be conservative and intransigent.
3- Saving timeouts and/or challenges. Points are points no matter when they occur. 2 points are not more valuable late than they are in the middle of the game. You need a numbers nerd on your staff to point these kind of realities out. Against the Knicks the Celtics "saved" their challenge and used it on a call that had little chance of being overturned. Earlier in the game they didn’t challenge an obviously bad call that almost certainly would have been overturned. The odds of overturning the call and the cost in points or personal fouls should dictate when a challenge is made. Saving challenges and benching players in foul trouble are not winning strategies, and they’re strategies that are might expose a dumb coaching staff that doesn’t understand numbers.
4- Shot clock wasting. This often comes in the form of ISOs. Late in the game against the Spurs Tatum backed the ball out to half court, and I knew it was very unlikely the team would score on what was a critical possession. The cost of intentionally wasting time on the shot clock is significant. It decreased your opportunity to create a good shot. If you have an elite ISO player maybe it makes some sense, but the Celtics don’t.
The good news is that the Celtics did much better late against the Knicks. Tatum did maybe his best job ever at creating open looks for teammates. The shots didn’t go down and almost every crazy BS shot the Knicks threw in the air did. (Refer back to the dumb decision to have another below average shooter/ small defender, Schroder, on the floor late.) It takes time for the Cs to create quality shots. Dribbling the clock down is usually a bad idea, but it’s a terrible idea for the Celtics.
5- Not cutting enough/ moving enough off the ball. I know the Celtics coaches and management want to see more off-ball movement. They’re pretty explicit about it. Smart, Tatum, Horford, Grant, and Rob are all very good at hitting cutters for easy buckets. Tatum and Brown and elite finishers when they’re going downhill to the rim. The Celtics did more of this against the Suns are were pretty much unstoppable. The Celtics aren’t a great shooting team, so driving and kicking won’t always be a great strategy (game ending strategy vs the Knicks…). They can get great shots off of cuts and off ball movement, but they have to actually do it. (Watch highlights from the early part of the PHX NYE game. They just killed them with ball and player movement. It was a layup line.)
A team like the Warriors makes a ball movement offense work by doing it ALL THE TIME. They go hard all game every game. The Celtics have to do that to have a consistently good offense. Anecdotally, the Cs’ in game ups and downs are almost always the result of playing hard and moving the ball and themselves, or not. I don’t know how to fix the lapses in concentration and effort. Relaxing when you have a lead is just human nature, but the Celtics go into a coma.
6- Make adjustments. Watching the Celtics give up the switch that put Rob on Dejounte Murray over and over was infuriating. The occasional rigidity of the defensive scheme can be very frustrating. Rob can handle guards on sometimes, but teams are going to run the same thing at you over and over if you can’t stop it. The Celtics couldn’t stop that play, and it was a significant factor in the outcome of the game. Have another plan when your plan A isn’t working, please. (Again, having Schroder on the court made the Cs less switchable late in that game. Having him on the floor opens up more potential mismatches.)
When Steve Kerr took over the Warriors in 2014 he inherited a good team. They pushed the Clippers to 7 games in the first round and won 51 games the previous season. Kerr walked into Oracle with a binder of ideas he collected while working as a broadcaster. He instituted radicle systems on offense and defense. They ran a pace and space offense built around 2 incredible shooters and a bunch of exceptional high IQ passers. On defense they used their switch-ability to smother opposing teams and hide their weaknesses. It was revolutionary. Kerr was able to figure out how to optimize his roster and build a system around their unique strengths. The Celtics are not optimizing their roster. Occasionally we are treated to a performance that shows what this team is capable of, but it’s not happening consistently. The Celtics torched the NBA’s #2 defense for 123 points on NYE without their best offensive player. They did not do it with hot 3 point shooting. They shot 10 for 27 (37%). They average 12.2 for 36.5 (33.4%). The Celtics often do better when they shoot better from 3, but that isn’t going to be how they win consistently. They need to play to their strengths. They need to identify what makes them different, or special, build a plan to take advantage of those special skills, and then actually follow that plan on the floor.
The Celtics have elite passing bigs. They have incredibly athletic wings who are either stronger or quicker than pretty much everyone else in the league. They have a ton of wings who can defend multiple positions at a high level (Romeo, Smart, Brown, Tatum, Richardson, Grant…). Smart is arguably the best defensive guard on earth, Romeo is holding opponents to 38.2% from the field (national media darling Mikal Bridges is being scored on at a 45.1% clip), and Jaylen has transformed the defense on his return. The Celtics have 2 relatively switch-able elite shot blockers. They have a stretch 4 who is one of the best spot up 3 point shooters in the NBA this season. The Celtics have 2 x 2 way wings who are 25 or under. Most of these qualities and talents are unique to the Celtics, but they are infrequently put to good use. Young teams will lose close games and make mistakes. It’s part of the learning process, and it’s fine, but there is a good team here that isn’t making the most of their talent and the way their talent fits together. I don’t expect much improvement until they can figure out and implement a system that optimizes that talent. Watch the 1st half vs the Suns again. Then watch the early 3rd quarter. It’s all right there.