For the majority of the season, most of the talk surrounding the Boston Celtics has been about how great their offense has been. In fact, up until recently, they laid claim to the best offense in league history. But after a less-than-stellar three-game trip to California, that’s no longer the case. Instead, fans briefly saw flashbacks of last year’s team - and not the one that ended up in the NBA Finals.
While Boston’s season last year ended up extending into June, the turnaround didn’t actually start until the end of January. Now, obviously, that’s not technically true, but the version of the Celtics that made a championship run didn’t show up through the first few months of the season.
From October to January, the Celtics played iso-heavy on offense, couldn’t find their rhythm from three-point land, and constantly blew leads. It was a stagnant brand of basketball that they had to (and did) overcome, but it’s the exact style of play that they’ve employed in recent games.
All season long, the Celtics’ plan has been clear: move the ball and generate open shots. It sounds simple, but last year’s early-season squad failed at that. It didn’t take long for Marcus Smart to call out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown publicly for their lack of passing. During Boston’s California trip, a shooting slump led to the Celtics reverting back to those old bad habits.
The Celtics shoot 41.6% on catch-and-shoot threes this year, but in their last three games, that number has dipped to just 32.6%. Part of that is their subpar ball movement, but the harsh reality is that some players just went through a slump. Over the last three games, Derrick White has shot 2-of-10 on catch-and-shoot threes, Sam Hauser has shot 3-of-11, and Grant Williams has shot 3-for-10. On the year, all three of those players have shot well above 40%.
Slumps happen, but it’s the way that the Celtics responded to the slump that’s concerning. Instead of trusting the ball movement, keeping on pace with the plans, or finding other ways to score within the flow of the offense, Tatum and Brown often took it upon themselves to score.
Boston’s collapse against the Los Angeles Lakers was a prime example. They played excellent basketball through the first two-and-a-half quarters, getting smart shots, shooting it well, and taking care of the basketball. But a couple of turnovers turned into an avalanche, and for the rest of the confidence, the gameplan seemed to be to get the ball to Tatum and Brown.
By the time overtime rolled around, the Celtics seemed to have things back under control, wiping the floor with the Lakers, but until that point, they relied on their stars. And while that may sound like the correct way to play, it only works when the scoring comes within the flow of the offense.
With 6:57 left to go in the third quarter, the Celtics were up on the Lakers by a score of 81-61. But by the time there was 4:25 left in the fourth, Boston found themselves down by 13 points, 106-93. In that time, they turned the ball over 10 times, and their offense fell stagnant.
At the time of this possession, the Lakers were on a 5-0 run. In a vacuum, that seems like nothing, but Boston’s offensive choices fueled the Lakers. Tatum finds himself in a tricky spot here, and the shot clock was a factor too, but anytime he leaves his feet before a pass, it’s bound to be a bad possession.
Tatum tries to work himself out of the situation, turning around in hopes of nailing a jumper. When he realizes that option is gone, he tries getting into the paint, which leads to a turnover.
Then came this Brown-only possession before which the Lakers’ run reached 7-2.
Joe Mazzulla loves to preach the idea of taking quick shots, but that comes with the caveat that they also have to be good shots. Driving the length of the floor just to take a reverse layup over the outstretched arms of Anthony Davis (one of the better defenders in the league) probably isn’t considered a good shot — especially when it immediately leads to a fastbreak for the opponent resulting in an and-one for Lonnie Walker IV and extending LA’s run.
And then there were plays like this one, which came toward the very end of the Lakers’ monster comeback. At this point in the game, they were on a 32-5 run as Boston struggled to keep possession of the ball. While they eventually made a miraculous comeback of their own, choices like this were preventing them from doing so.
Brown takes the ball himself, drives on Austin Reaves, and ends up with a tough, fadeaway jumper in the mid-range. Sometimes, stars need to be allowed to run things on their own and get to their spots. But ball movement and quality shots should be the priority when a team is on the bad end of a run like the one LA was on.
Mistakes compounding mistakes is the tagline of Boston’s collapse against the Lakers. They were present throughout their three games in California and a microcosm of what to avoid moving forward. Turnovers, iso-ball, and a stagnant offense created the three-headed monster that spearheaded Boston’s failures in the early portions of last year. Losses to the LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors, along with their issues against the Lakers, reflected that style of play to a tee.
Talent can win a team games, and the Celtics have two of the best players in the league in Tatum and Brown. That talent bailed them out of a game they should have lost after they threw it away. Talent is important, but talent doesn’t win championships on its own.
The key to that is consistency, playing the right way, and fluidity - three of the characteristics of Boston’s league-best offense. If the Celtics want to push for a title this year, they need to stick to that script and trust the process. (And trust it more consistently than their divisional counterparts).