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Good things typically come in threes. For the Celtics, it’s much more complicated.

A painstakingly (and painfully) researched look at how the third quarter has made or broken the Boston Celtics all year.

Boston Celtics Vs. Golden State Warriors at Chase Center Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

With heads bowed and shoulders shrugged, the Boston Celtics trudged to the visitor’s locker room of the Chase Center without any shred of command. They hadn’t recorded a made field goal since there were roughly three minutes remaining in the second quarter. And though the Warriors had similar results down the stretch of the second, they managed to score twice, both within the final 1:11 of the first half, and grasped what appeared to be all the momentum. It was as though the lead was 10, or 20, or 29, like it grew to later in the game.

Golden State led 52-50 at halftime of Game 2.

What followed has unfortunately become commonplace now. The Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors traded buckets for about four minutes until Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were called for consecutive fouls on Steph Curry — both of them non-shooting and taking place in the same possession. The Warriors were suddenly in the bonus. The clock read “6:55.” The Warriors would shoot free throws for the rest of those seven minutes any time they were lightly exhaled near.

The Celtics had yet again thrown a close game into the depth’s of the nearest toilet and pressed flush so aggressively over and over again that they gave the arena’s overnight janitorial staff fatal agita. I knew all of this information already, of course. But that validation helps me understand it more.

Wait... no, now that I think about it, that doesn’t make sense either. Because the Boston Celtics had thrown away multiple games before in these playoffs, and just about every time, it’s because of a grievous disintegration that took place during the fateful 12-minute stretch of basketball known as the Third Quarter. It comes right after halftime. It’s your least favorite Warriors fan’s favorite frame. I have now received the same link from 19 different Bostonians in my life, one calling for the removal of the third quarter from all final box scores moving forward. It has 2,689 specified signatures; 411 belong to members of the Affleck family and Anna Horford.

Before signing the petition myself — as much as I’m a basketball purist at heart, I’m also a pained man — I wanted to put myself through a bit more pain, but basketball is basketball, and I’m hardly one to complain about some extra research. In an effort to understand what exactly the Celtics do wrong in the third quarter, the stuff that continues to cause them, their fans, those that cover them, and even those that casually follow the NBA through so much third-quarter grief, I pored over the stats, third quarter outcomes, and rewatched every single third quarter the Celtics played this season.

Indeed, this work is the act of a sick person. Here’s what this sick person learned.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Two Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There was absolutely no reason for it to happen the way that it did. The Boston Celtics, while on the road, had won four of five games as the visitor, all of which certainly coming in front of much more hostile crowds than the ones Miami could ever muster. Never mind the fact that this was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals and the Heat — not favored but definitely not counted out — and their engine that could and would even when he shouldn’t, Jimmy Butler, was experiencing a postseason for the ages. This Boston team was different. They had weathered a storm that clouded the better part of the regular season; sure, the third quarter started off on an ugly foot, but things would level out... right?

Wrong. The Celtics lost that third quarter, 39-14, a 25-point embarrassment that ignited FTX Arena to a volume it hadn’t eclipsed since the days when its sponsor was American Airlines. And this crowd’s enthusiasm was warranted. Their Miami Heat had just ripped a game on their home floor out of the clutches of a road team that had come in and attempted to take it, then ultimately took it for granted before the game was even remotely decided. In that quarter:

  • The Celtics shot 2-for-15 from the field, their worst shooting quarter over the past four seasons, regular season or playoffs.
  • After going 15-for-28 on contested shots in the first half, the Celtics went 1-for-12 on them in the third.
  • 7:07. That’s how long it took for Boston to score its first basket of the third quarter, the team's longest drought to start a quarter without a field goal all season.
  • The last time Boston took seven-plus minutes to score in a quarter was in Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Detroit Pistons. The final score of that game was 66-64. Boston won.
  • Jayson Tatum had six turnovers in the third quarter alone — three of them on consecutive possessions, all leading to Miami buckets — and Boston had eight as a team. That’s as many as it had in the other three quarters combined. The Heat scored 12 of their 19 points off Boston turnovers in the third. (All stats per ESPN.)

The Heat would later become the only team in NBA playoff history to win just two of the first 12 quarters of a series and have a 2-1 series advantage. Sure, Boston took the series, but not without a few heart attacks along the way, none of which they really had to endure.

“The guys were just really disappointed at halftime,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after Game 1. “I barely needed to say anything. Everybody was just disappointed at our defensive effort and focus. But look, this is a very good team that we’re playing against. So it’s not only us saying that, hey, we have to do that better. They are putting a lot of pressure on our defense, and that’s what you expect when you get to this level.”

I barely needed to say anything. Funny; when the Celtics come out at halftime, I often find myself wondering, “what the hell did they say to each other during the break that caused... this?”

It’s all very confounding, especially considering that the Celtics were one of the league’s best teams in the third quarter during the regular season. They scored 29.2 points per third, trailing only the Charlotte Hornets’ 29.4 for second-best in the league, and gave up 26.5, tied for the seventh-fewest points allowed in that frame this season.

There’s something else. More often than not this season, the Celtics won the games in which they won the third quarter in particular. Boston won 50 third quarters over the course of the regular season; its record in those games was 35-15. Had Boston won every single third quarter this season and kept up that pace in terms of wins and losses, they would have finished with somewhere close to 57 wins. (Of course, that takes away the whole variable that was the first half of the regular season in which the Celtics were a disaster machine; not exactly an infallible calculator.)

Regular Season Third Quarters

Result No. of games
Result No. of games
Third quarter win 50
Third quarter loss 28
Third quarter tie 4 (WLWL)
Games won when third quarter won 35
Games won when third quarter lost 14
Games lost when third quarter lost 14
Games lost when third quarter won 15
Per Stathead

As for third quarters that the Celtics dominated or were dominated — I felt like 10 points was a solid benchmark for that term — the correlation was even starker: Boston was 15-3 in the games in which they won the third by 10 or more, and 3-4 when they lost the third by 10 or more. And in those three wins where Boston lost the third by a dime, the C’s managed to win at least one other quarter by 10 or more points, countering those third period explosions by the opponent with a 12-minute drubbing of their own (like what Boston did to Golden State in the 4th quarter of Game 1).

Regular Season Third Quarters, Pt. 2

Result No. of games
Result No. of games
Third quarter win by 10+ points 18
Third quarter loss by 10+ points 7
Games won when third quarter won by 10+ 15
Games lost when third quarter lost by 10+ 4
Games won when third quarter lost by 10+ 3
Games lost when third quarter won by 10+ 3
Per Stathead

In the postseason, that sort of steady success has devolved into messy 12-minute stretches of turnovers, missed shots, and negligible urgency that has either kicked in too late or not at all, resulting in collapse after collapse. Upon first glance at the traditional averages, it doesn’t seem so bad. The Celtics are scoring 25.6 points and allowing 27.5 to their opponents, but most quarters tend to have one team that scores fewer points, and Boston’s -1.9 differential in the third during the postseason is hardly an eye sore. They are, however, shooting just 41.9 percent in third quarters so far in the playoffs, third-worst ahead of only Chicago (40.5) and Toronto (41.1).

The advanced stats are what paint the broader picture: Boston’s third-quarter offensive rating in the playoffs — 104.9 — is 12th out of 16 total participants, and dead last out of the eight teams that have played more than 10 games this postseason (Miami, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia in the East; Golden State, Dallas, Memphis, and Phoenix in the West).

Defensively, things aren’t quite as bleak — Boston’s rating is 112.5, sixth out of all playoff teams, and trailing notable defensive stalwarts such as Miami (96.9) and Milwaukee (99.7). And they’ve been steadily holding their opponents to 44 percent shooting, the second-best in the playoffs behind Golden State (42.9). But when paired alongside their offensive struggles, which have helped form a 10th-ranked -7.5 net rating in the third frame this postseason, the recipe is one for self-imposed cataclysm.

They say the best offense is a good defense, but there is undoubtedly a direct connection between offense fueling a defense as well, particularly in terms of energy. When Boston scores in flurries and bunches, there’s a noticeable difference in the energy they play with on defense. By contrast, when shots simply won’t fall, or the game becomes physical to the point of frustrating moments piling on top of one another, Boston tends to struggle to remain locked in defensively. The former is what helped the Celtics come back in Game 1; the latter is what lost them Game 2.

The outliers, those that haven’t been mere 7.5-point losses, are ghastly. And if it feels like they’ve been far more prevalent since the Celtics advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond, that’s because they have been. The Celtics were 4-0 against the Nets in third quarters; that series was a sweep. In the Bucks series — a crapshoot, for all intents and purposes — Boston won its final three third quarters, and the final two games to take the series from Milwaukee. So far, so fairly good.

Then came the now-infamous third quarter of Game 1 against Miami, in which the Celtics ultimately gave the game away, losing by 25. (“Haven’t you heard, that they won every other quarter by a combined 14 points?!” I holler repeatedly through the padded walls of my cell at the Bayless Institution for Cold Take-havers.) The teams tied the third in the next three games; Boston won two of them. Then, the Celtics won Game 5 by 13 after winning the third by 16. They lost the third in Game 6 by five, and lost the game by eight. And in the clincher, Boston won the third by one point, but somehow managed to carry their 15-point first frame advantage through the game’s entirety — even when they did everything in their power to cause millions of heart attacks across New England and its neighboring regions by nearly throwing it all away in the last three minutes of the closing period.

And against the Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Celtics have been outscored 73-38 in the third quarter through two games. Boston led by two at the half of Game 1, lost the third quarter by 14, but then won the fourth by a Finals-record 24 points, scoring 40 points in an offensive barrage that Hulk-ed the Warriors into puny gods. But in Game 2, Boston was punked in the third, by 25, thanks to a combination of head games, momentum, and urgency — in summary, some really, really electric offense from a Warriors team that showed its first true shades of those championship squads of mid-2010’s yore — all of which Golden State capped off the third with a 38-foot buzzer-beater from Splash Brother in training, Jordan Poole.

To begin the fourth, Ime Udoka made some desperation lineup swaps — benching his stars in favor of pure physicality, not necessarily offensive prowess — and picked up a technical foul he later said was intentional. “I just let them know how I felt throughout the game, in a demonstrative way, on purpose, to get a technical,” Udoka said. Al Horford noted, “I could see that coming a mile away.” I know he was referring to Udoka’s technical, but it’s an eerily perfect reference to the Warriors’ third-quarter explosion, too.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Two Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

So, we know about the collapses. We’ve seen the numbers, ratings, and averages behind them. But what about what happens qualitatively in these third quarters? What is it about Boston’s approach to the third that causes these exhausting stretches of missed shots and hopeless possessions on both ends?

For starters, the Celtics turn the ball over more in the third than in any other quarter, 4.1 times, which is third-worst in this postseason field. Their turnover percentage of 16.6 is mind-bogglinly bad; no NBA champion since the Warriors in 2014-15 (17.2) has been worse at taking care of the ball in the third quarter during their postseason run. In addition, Boston’s effective field goal percentage in the quarter sits at 48.8, which is dead last out of the playoff teams to play 10 or more games and fourth-worst in the entire field. Whatever they’re doing at the moment isn’t working, despite the fact that at the beginning of this postseason run, the third quarters felt like a relative wash.

Perhaps you can attribute that to the level of competition going up with every round; the Warriors are undoubtedly the best team the Celtics have played thus far, so it would make sense that they give Boston the hardest time across four quarters, not just the third. But these issues persisted against Miami, too, and plenty would argue that Milwaukee was a better team than the Heat even without Khris Middleton. I’d fall into that camp; whoever won the Bucks-Celtics series, in my mind, was going to win the title, a prediction I stand by regardless of Boston’s evident woes in these crucial stretches.

For the most part, the Celtics hurt themselves more than Miami hurt them, and the same goes for this Finals’ series against the Warriors. In 425 total third-quarter possessions over the course of these last two series’ — 211 on offense and 214 on defense — Boston has been outscored 257-210. A differential of 47 points is rather abysmal; to have only scored 210 points on 425 total possessions is somehow far worse.

What can you thank for the scoring shortcomings? In part, an ability to knock down triples at an efficient rate: the Celtics are shooting just 27.6 percent on non-heave threes in the third (21/76 from deep). Many of these threes are one or many of the following: contested, heat checks dating back to pregame shootaround, early in the shot clock, and/or desperation-charged, like the hope is to regain momentum with a single shot.

On two-pointers, they’ve been okay, though far from good enough to win: they’ve shot 48.4 percent from inside the arc in third quarters since the start of the conference finals, but there’s one big problem: they’ve only shot 17 more twos than they have threes. Some teams live and die by the three; the Celtics have proven time and again that they are not one of those teams. So why in the world would they pretend that they have to be when the situation becomes most dire? I don’t have an answer. Worse? Neither do the Celtics.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Jaylen Brown said, responding to a question about why the Celtics have been so shoddy in the third quarter, time after time. “We’ve just got to come out and play basketball for 48 minutes. We do the best we can every single night, and it’s gotten us to The Finals. We’re not a perfect team, but we’ll figure it out going forward. We know the Warriors are a third-quarter team. We talked about it. They still came out and were able to go on a run. We’ve just got to be able to answer, and we didn’t tonight.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely frustrating,” Derrick White added. “We’ve talked about it pretty much the whole postseason. It’s easy to talk about, but we’ve got to go out there and change something. That was a big quarter for them and really a quarter that put us away.”

“It’s something we have to fix, that we have to address,” Al Horford said. “I know Coach has talked about it. I’ll have to go back and look at the whole game but really look at the third, and we need to find ways to be better.”

The Warriors, meanwhile, were confident that their big run would arrive eventually and take Boston out of the game for good. “I felt like it was coming the entire game,” Draymond Green said of the third. “I felt like we were playing really good basketball and we just didn’t pull away. If you stay the course and continue to play basketball, it will eventually go your way. We did a good job of that, and we feed off it.”

The Celtics are a team that feeds off of defensive stops, and in these last two series, their third quarters have been all-but devoid of empty trips for the opponent. But as I mentioned before: sometimes the best offense is a good defense. I’ll offer an addendum to that idea: sometimes the best offense is an opposing offense making careless mistakes and setting you up for success.

See, the Celtics haven’t necessarily been miserable defensively in third periods this postseason. Instead, they’ve made things inexplicably hard on themselves offensively, thus setting up easy scoring opportunities for their opponents, Miami and Golden State in particular. You saw in the video above the turnovers Boston has committed in the third so far in these last two series; many of Boston’s third-quarter turnovers, particularly against Golden State in Games 1 and 2, resulted in runouts and fastbreak triples, easy chances that that act as nitro-fuel for a crowd as passionate as theirs. The Warriors found their stroke in the third quarter of Game 2, shooting seven of 12 from three after going just six-for-16 attempts in the first half. If only you could benefit from assists to guys on the other team. Someone start a for that rule amendment; I’ll make some calls.

“It’s just kind of as simple as we’ve just got to take care of the ball. We’ve done it, and we’re a really good team when we take care of the ball,” Udoka said, citing the third as a timeframe in which the Celtics neglect discipline for desperation. “But we have those lapses where we snowball effect, we pile on turnovers and dig ourselves into a hole.”

By invoking so many quotes from Celtics I’m being a bit unfair, primarily to these Warriors. They aren’t slouches, particularly on offense. This postseason they’re averaging 121.1 points per 100 possessions in the third, the highest of any team that lasted more than six games. So the idea that their barrages aren’t organic is untrue in its entirety. It’s just that the Celtics have hardly done themselves any favors, and by contrast, continue to do the Warriors plenty of favors via unforced errors and uncharacteristic mistakes. Pretty soon, it won’t be fair to call the mistakes uncharacteristic. We may be past that point already.

That the themes are obvious enough to point out across the entire season, let alone just the C’s final two postseason series, really illustrates how far gone the team may be at this point. Unforced errors and ill-advised drives — or this odd penchant Robert Williams III has for bringing a lobbed pass down to his waist before rising up for what should be an easy layup — lead to a litany of turnovers. Many shots, even open ones, come far too early in the shot clock when plenty of time to manufacture a better look remains. In far too many third quarters early on in the regular season, Boston failed to match the opponent’s energy in the third. That’s why they looked like a joke and a colossal failure for the better part of the season’s first half; that’s why they’ve been able to be punked repeatedly over the course of the last nine games.

“We didn’t play a great first half at all and we were down two, gave away a lot of opportunities, and instead of tightening up in that area we did more of the same,” Udoka said after... well, it was after Game 2 of The Finals, but honestly, why worry about the attribution? It fits everywhere you look. Save the mention of the two-point deficit, and it could apply to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals or Game #39 of the regular season. Especially in their most egregious losses, failing to do more than the same has been what kills the Boston Celtics.

Evidently, anymore of the same could kill this dream run for good.

All stats are through Game 2 of the 2022 NBA Finals (June 6).

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