1. The Boston Celtics aren’t a bad basketball team. But they aren’t exactly a good one at the moment either.
A bad defensive game or two to open the season isn’t much to get worried about. Five consecutive poor defensive games are pretty worrisome, however.
Perhaps worst of all, the lack of offensive execution that plagued the “old” Celtics came back late. The ball got sticky, sloppy turnovers happened, and it resulted in a loss.
2. You could kind of tell things might get sideways on Boston at the start of the third quarter. Postgame, Al Horford said, “I felt like the beginning of the third we didn’t come out in the right mindset.” That feels pretty spot-on.
The quarter opened with Jaylen Brown forcing a contested fallaway after dribbling away most of the clock:
3. The second possession of the third quarter, Marcus Smart took this contested step-back three with half of the shot-clock remaining:
4. On the third possession of the third quarter, Jayson Tatum ran into a charge after another messy offensive set.
5. On the fourth play of the third quarter, Jaylen Brown lost the ball out of bounds on this drive:
Four empty possessions in a row. The Celtics had a 12-point halftime lead, and the Cavs didn’t score on their three possessions to open the second half. If Boston had scored on even a couple of those possessions, they might have buried Cleveland and won the game.
6. Turnovers…ugh. So many turnovers. 19 giveaways, including 10 combined from Jaylen Brown (six) and Jayson Tatum (four).
Boston shot 51.2% from the field for the game. They were 26-of-32 from the free throw line. That should be enough to win in a blowout. But tossing away roughly a sixth of their possessions is a recipe for disaster.
7. Also disastrous is the Celtics defense. Yes, Boston is missing Robert Williams. But all of the other components of last season’s Finals team are basically there. What isn’t there is the scheme or the execution from a year ago.
For whatever reason, the Celtics have gone away from the switch-everything coverages that made them a historically special defense a year ago. Instead, it’s this odd combination of drop coverage and asking players to fight through screens. Over and over and over, ballhandlers are walking into open jumpers. Or, worse, they are getting straight lines to the rim.
What spurred this change in scheme is unknown. It can’t all be that Williams is missing, because Boston continued to switch everything at the end of last regular season, as well as throughout the playoffs when Williams was out. It’s really only a question that Joe Mazzulla can answer.
In addition, defensive rebounding has been bad for Boston. Al Horford has to be better than this. Getting beat to the board by Caris LeVert is one thing. Turning to yell at someone instead of closing out to LeVert at the arc is another thing entirely. This is a rare lapse in judgement from Boston’s steady veteran:
8. The Celtics had 24 assists through three quarters. That’s a really, really good rate. The ball was popping, the drive-and-kick game was working and Boston was scoring at will.
In the fourth quarter, the Celtics had one assist.
As everything crumbled, they reverted to the Celtics of old. All one-pass, followed-by-a-contested-jumper possessions.
Jayson Tatum saw three shots during his 6:49 of fourth-quarter play. One of those was the attempted game-winner at the buzzer. The other two were a missed three-pointer and a missed floater.
Boston’s star had 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting through the first three quarters. Then he took just three shots during the entire fourth quarter. It’s absolutely non-sensical to not get him more touches.
9. The last thing we want to focus on here are the minutes totals. Jaylen Brown played 42:48. Jayson Tatum played 42:11. And shockingly, Al Horford went 41:25.
Those are all way too high in an October game for a team that hopes to play into late-June.
Sure, Boston was coming off of three days off, but they have four games over the next week. It’s far too early to be putting this kind of load onto the team’s best players. Brown and Tatum will likely be fine. Except Brown tends to pick up nagging injuries, and Tatum admitted to being fatigued by the end of the Finals. And this team needs Horford if they are going to be a real contender. Even with other bigs unavailable, he can’t be going 40-plus minutes. Find another way, either with current personnel, or by bringing in some different guys who can pick 10-15 minutes a night.
10. This isn’t as bad as last year’s uneven mess of a team. But somehow, it almost feels worse. That’s because we all know the Celtics can, and should, be better than this. It can’t all be “Wait until Rob gets back”, because that’s: 1. Too far away and 2. Uncertain as to when it will happen.
Boston has to fix the defense. The offense needs to play the right way for 48 minutes. Not just the first 36-40. Joe Mazzulla needs to start taking timeouts and stop letting so many of them whither on the vine.
Otherwise, this won’t just feel worse than last season’s October through December mess. It will be worse, because there are real expectations this season. It’s still early, but it won’t stay that way for long.