BOSTON — The Celtics walked through their first full practice session of the season after Robert Williams III’s return this week. They needed it. As their previously devastating offensive sets turned into a slump, shooters became discouraged and the team tried to maintain an optimistic tone. It didn’t help. The offense hit rock bottom in Sunday’s 95-92 loss to the Magic, shooting 34.8% from the field and 25.5% from three and the defense faltered as they fell behind by 30 to the Pacers on Wednesday.
Brad Stevens responded, speaking prior to Friday’s game against the Timberwolves in support of his interim head coach and in favor or some urgency from a group starting to slip. Losing streaks happen, but the key is how teams respond to them and Boston hasn’t done so well.
Derrick White hesitated to take an open corner three and fell to 0-for-7 shooting against the Pacers. Sam Hauser returned to earth, turnovers creeped back into Jaylen Brown’s game and Marcus Smart saw body language concerns across the board in the mini series loss to Orlando.
“The easiest thing in the world to do is point to shooting variance and I don’t look at the game that way. We’ve got to find a way, as a team, to improve,” Stevens said. “ ... the wide open catch-and-shoot threes, we’ll take those all day long, but there are ways to, without making it more difficult on ourselves, get another layup per half, and that’s usually what it boils down to, right? This isn’t rocket science, but I think from my perspective, the last two weeks, we just look like we’re in a little bit of a rut, so we’ve just got to play ourselves out of it and make sure we don’t have halves like we had in the first half the other night, that was a rough one.”
The Celtics’ historic offense slowed at nearly the opposite rate over the last 10 games to last place, scoring 105.9 points per possessions, nearly three whole points behind the 29th-ranked Clippers. Much of their approach remains the same, whether drives, passes per game, potential assists and even their turnover rate only ticked up mildly to 14%. Their reliance on threes increased from 41.5 attempts per game to nearly 44.
Boston has struggled, even though their best offensive runs this year, to produce consistent looks at the rim. They fell to last in the five games prior to Wednesday, before generating 47 against the Pacers, nearly double their 26.6 per game for the season (24th) and only converting 46.8% in the loss.
Opponents have began reading and predicting their passes from the post. The Celtics resorted to chasing offensive rebounds and playing aggressively in their own defensive end, allowing Indiana to create open looks, looking erratic.
“I think it’s part of the drive-and-kick game,” Joe Mazzulla told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog on Tuesday commenting on the rim looks. “The first thing people try to do is protect the rim, so we do have to get out and run harder in the early transition to try to generate some of those, but I think we’re making the right play at the rim. Our rim read percentage was 75% (on Sunday), so 75% of the time we drove the ball, we made the right play at the rim. So that means guys are trying to take it away and we’re making the next best read.”
Stevens hasn’t made suggestions or directives to Mazzulla out of turn, comparing himself to someone on Twitter giving advice when he isn’t involved in practices or film sessions. He’s liked the job the interim head coach has done so far. His appearance at shootaround seemed to signal an attempt to take some heat off Mazzulla, who has often leaned into not calling timeouts to stop runs and an optimistic public tone through the losses.
Mazzulla said Boston played great through stretches of Sunday’s loss to the Magic and followed that on Wednesday by saying he doesn’t get concerned and trusts the team.
The players have reacted differently, going from calling the Golden State loss one of 82 games, to playing out a blowout loss against the Clippers and showing some fatigue upon returning to Boston.
Jayson Tatum noted the games not feeling as fun late during that stretch, before missing Sunday’s game for personal reasons, while Marcus Smart noticed teammates pressing and looking dejected after misses. Grant Williams saw the Celtics falling into old habits to begin the streak.
“I think we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves,” Smart told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog. “We played so high for a period of time, I think we kind of expected to play like that and it’s not gonna happen. We’re not gonna shoot the way we’ve been shooting and playing the way we’ve been playing all the time. We’re gonna have games like this, we knew it was gonna even out for us, we’ve just gotta go out and play. We definitely have been pressing these last couple of games trying to be perfect.”
“The main thing for us is the body language, you can tell, we’ll miss a shot we usually make and we’ll just looking like, ‘what the ... is going on? It didn’t go in,’ instead of getting back on the defensive end and making up, coming back and shooting that same shot and making it this time. Then also, offensive rebounding, we’re allowing guys to sneak up under us, what we usually do to other people, they’re doing to us. Those two signs right there let us know how much we’re pressing.”
Malcolm Brogdon didn’t notice anything at shootaround or in the day leading up to Wednesday’s game that would indicate why they didn’t show up. Energy Robert Williams III also noticed missing allowed their defense to lag, missing cutters, allowing a transition breakout after a make and giving up second chance opportunities to Jalen Smith.
Williams III being able to play 22 minutes and closed bolstered the defense in the second half, where the Celtics allowed only 93 points per 100 possessions. They haven’t established rhythm and consistency on that end while prioritizing offense early in the season though, leading to slip-ups where Indiana shot 50.9% in the first half and scored 42 points in the first quarter.
Offensively, it’s noticeable how much teams drew from what the Warriors and Clippers did successfully on defense to slow the Celtics’ five-out offensive attacks. They both had personnel to switch often, while Orlando and Indiana instead relied on collapsing and scrambling, shuffling shots toward White, Hauser, Smart and Al Horford. They’ve combined for 20.1 three-point attempts per game, nearly half of the team’s looks each night, compared to 18 prior. Those four fell from 42.8% to 28.4% from three.
Brogdon, who’s held on scoring 14.0 points per game on 42.4% shooting, can be part of the solution, Stevens thinks. If they can’t right themselves internally, a trade could emerge.
“We haven’t been the best offensive rebounding team in the world, we haven’t been great at turning people over this year, so we’re not getting run outs and we’ve got to get some shots at the rim and some drives to get to the free throw line,” he said. “(Brogdon’s) one of our better guys at doing that.”