Maybe it was New Year’s resolutions gone awry.
Maybe it was the thinner air in Mile High.
Maybe it was the forty-minute delay after Robert Williams smashed an alley-oop lob to bend the rim crooked in the fourth quarter.
Whatever it was, the Celtics shooting slump that sunk a chunk of their December reared its ungly head again in 2023. A 9-for-33 performance from behind the arc sealed Boston’s fate in a 123-111 drubbing against the Nuggets (who conversely hit seventeen of their thirty 3’s on Sunday night).
On one hand, this happens. Last year, they shot under 27% from 3 in ten games and lost nine of them. Remember the 2-for-26 debacle in D.C.? This season, the Celtics have lost all five games when they’ve fell short of that mark, including last night’s drubbing in Denver.
Maybe it wasn’t even Williams’ dunk that dislodged the stanchion. Bricks can have the same effect.
A lot of good teams have bad shooting nights. That’s not news. The defending champs are 1-2 on extreme off nights. Dallas has lost all four of their sub-27% games, too. The Bucks went through a similar shooting rut that Boston suffered through last month and have been 1-6 so far in similar games. Even Denver, the league’s second-best offense, are 2-3 when shooting below that imaginary Mendoza line.
It’s hard not to think that the entire loss — the Celtics first against the Nuggets in the last seven games between the two clubs — hinged on last night’s three-point shooting discrepancy. Eight more Denver makes is 24 points. Boston won the turnover differential, allowed just one offensive rebound against Denver’s bigger front court, and outscored the Nuggets 60-46 in points in the paint and 15-3 on second chance points.
Big picture, the Celtics still have the best record in the league and lost to the #1 seed in the West on the road, due in large part to a cold-shooting night in January. However, for some fans, there’s still a creeping suspicion that head coach Joe Mazzulla might want to make some changes to the team’s focus on offense.
Since his return, the favorite question to ask is whether or not Robert Williams should return to the starting lineup. Defensively, his influence is obvious. His size, speed, and versatility make him a terror in that free safety role that earned him a Second Team All-Defense nod last season. Offensively, he’s a willing screener/passer, a vertical spacer to the moon, and a relentless rebounder on the glass. And he doesn’t shoot 3’s. All but one of his thirty shot attempts have come in the restricted area and he’s made 25 of them.
Whether Williams starts is largely irrelevant really. He’s going to play. How much he plays could steal away a handful of 3FGA’s in favor of a few rim-bending throw downs from the dunker spot (sorry, NBA).
Bigger picture, the three-point shooting is what this team is built for. Unless President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens is planning on making large scale changes to the rotation of a 26-11 team, the Boston Celtics are a three-point shooting team and with that comes variance. And although it seems that they’re hot shooting is finding its level down, there is one trend to keep in mind. Boston was never going to maintain 40+% from behind the arc all year, but neither was their opponent. In what has been a strength in the Brad Stevens era, the Celtics have been building up those perimeter defenses again. Opponents shot 37.9% from three in October, 34.8% in November, and lower still in December at 34.3%.
Sunday was just one of those nights.