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Back-to-back bad ones: 8 Takeaways from Celtics-Clippers

Boston dropped two in a row to fall to 3-2 on the six-game road trip

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

(Note: No clips today. Apologies!)

1. This road trip was always going to be the stiffest test the Boston Celtics were going to face at this point in the season. After a 3-0 start, it was fair to start dreaming a little bigger.

The Golden State Warriors provided a stark reminder that Boston isn’t at the “showing up is enough” stage. The LA Clippers doubled down on that.

Many, including your fearless writer here, picked the Celtics and Clippers to meet in the 2023 NBA Finals. That makes the beatdown Boston received in Los Angeles a little worrisome, but not overly so.

Yes, the Celtics have played poorly in phases of the game against two good teams on the road. But that tends to happen against good teams on the road. It’s far from the end of the world to have losses at the Warriors and Clippers on your ledger.

What these games have clarified is that Boston is a very good team, but not a great team. And that’s fine. The Celtics don’t need to be great in mid-December. That can come later. And now they’ve got plenty of film of what they need to work on to get there.

2. It’s pretty clear by now that Boston really misses Al Horford against the best teams. With Blake Griffin starting, the Celtics have little choice to play drop coverage against pick-and-roll actions involving Griffin. The challenge is that Griffin lays back so far that he’s closer to the restricted area than he is the free throw line.

The Warriors walked into jumper after jumper against this coverage on Saturday, and the Clippers repeated it on Monday. But someone has to play, and Griffin was playing well on offense and on the glass. So, it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The Celtics also miss Horford’s quick decision-making. He’s very good at moving the ball or shooting right off the catch. Griffin tends to record scratch a bit, and that split-second allows the defense to catch back up.

And Boston misses Rob Williams in these games too. The Clippers lived in the midrange and the paint. Those are shots Williams can impact, if not take away entirely.

Horford and Timelord can’t return soon enough. Thankfully, we’re getting really close to that point.

3. The last two games were a reminder that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have had MVP and All-NBA caliber starts to the season, but they aren’t locks a those levels…yet.

Tatum hit a major shooting slump and hasn’t been able to shoot his way out of it. Brown, as he sometimes does, goes into “I got this” mode and that causes other issues.

The above criticisms aren’t to call Tatum nor Brown selfish. They aren’t selfish at all. They’re just trying to do too much when things go south. As that has so rarely happened this year, that it’s really stood out the last two games.

This isn’t Marcus Smart preaching for Tatum and Brown to trust their teammates, but it’s a reminder of that. Play the right way and the ball will come back to you. Trying to do it on your own to score and set someone up rarely works, especially against good teams.

4. The Celtics defense had been trending in the right direction for weeks. The Warriors and full-strength Clippers are very good offensive teams. This was a good test to see if Boston had really figured things out on that end.

The answer? The defense is still a work in progress.

As noted above, the Celtics miss Al Horford and Rob Williams. That showed up big time in these two games. But it goes beyond that.

Golden State and LA love to run a lot of off-ball stuff. No one cuts better than the Warriors, and the Clippers have sneaky-good cutters too. Some of Boston’s defenders have a bad habit of falling asleep when they are off-ball or not involved in a primary action. Quite often, they are athletic enough to make up for it. But when you face the best of the best, you have to be locked in at all times. That’s still lacking.

5. Another issue for Boston was poor defensive rebounding. The Warriors grabbed 11 of their own misses for a whopping 21 second-chance points. The Clippers grabbed 11 more offensive boards for 16 second-chance points.

The old adage is that defense doesn’t stop until you get the ball. Occasionally, the Celtics struggle with finishing good defensive possessions by rebounding.

Overall, the wings and guards have done a nice job getting on the glass. But too many times in each of these games, those guys missed their box-outs and let a smaller player get inside for the board. There’s no world where Terance Mann should get five offensive rebounds in a single game.

6. One positive? Boston’s bench continues to come through. Grant Williams played a really good all-around game. He made things tough on Kawhi Leonard at times, even if Leonard still hit everything. And Williams stepped up offensively when nothing else was going right for the Celtics.

Malcolm Brogdon came through too. This was another one of those “steadying” performances. Whenever Boston made a run, Brogdon was in the middle of it. Those good times just didn’t last long enough to pull the Celtics over the hump.

7. This space is going to consistently implore Joe Mazzulla to empty the bench earlier. After the blowout victory in Phoenix, Mazzulla admitted he doesn’t really know why he leaves his rotation regulars in so long.

It works the same way when Boston is getting blown out. The Celtics never really threatened the Clippers in the fourth quarter, as they didn’t get closer than 14 points. But Mazzulla left the regulars in until there was 3:16 to play and the deficit hovering around 20 points.

Just as it’s unnecessary to have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown logging close to, or more than, 40 minutes in a blowout win, it’s equally unnecessary in a blowout loss. Mazzulla said he liked the team’s energy and didn’t want to break that up. You know what else would be nice? Having energy on the second night of a back-to-back because you conserved some minutes in a blowout on the first leg.

8. Whew…that was a lot of negativity. Now that it’s all out there, we can kind of laugh a bit. Boston is 21-7 and still has the best record in the NBA. They lost to the defending champions and a team many picked to be in the Finals, both on the road. The losses aren’t bad ones, even if the way they happened is a little problematic.

The goal for a long trip is always to go .500. A winning record is good, while anything more is gravy.

The Celtics can go 4-2 and clinch a good trip. One that would see them return to Boston with the NBA’s best record. And to get there, they’ve got to beat the Lakers. Now, that would be one sweet bounce-back to end the road trip.

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