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Winning delayed in the new year: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Nuggets

In a weird loss, Boston never found their rhythm on either end of the floor

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

1. Weird game.

There was a nearly 40-minute delay during the Boston Celtics loss at the Denver Nuggets, due to the rim being slanted following a Rob Williams dunk. The delay didn’t really change anything as far as the outcome, but it added a layer of weirdness to what was already a weird game.

The Celtics didn’t take a ton of three-pointers on a cold-shooting night from the outside. They focused on getting inside, where they shot 57% on two-pointers and drew 27 free throw attempts. The ball was moving with 30 assists on 40 baskets. Turnovers were fairly low, with just 13 giveaways.

If anything was the issue, it was Boston’s defensive approach. We’ll hit that in a bit.

Mostly, this was the classic “make or miss” game. Denver made most of their threes. Boston didn’t. It happens sometimes.

2. Let’s start with some “good process” stuff. Of Boston’s 33 three-point attempts (which is a pretty low number), 31 were classified as open to wide-open. The Celtics generated good looks all game long. They just didn’t make them.

As mentioned above, Boston got to the free throw line 27 times. Jayson Tatum took 14 freebies himself. That was a nice adjustment to see out of the Celtics. They didn’t just settle to keep launching threes, even if they were getting good looks.

3. Denver has been a bad defensive team for most of this season. For all of his wonderful gifts on offense, Nikola Jokic isn’t a great rim protector on the other end. The Nuggets also regularly have two to three non-defenders on the floor most of the time too. That gives opponents room to attack, and Boston did.

Jokic doesn’t have much chance against Jaylen Brown 1-on-1. He has no chance 1-on-1 in transition:

The Celtics did a nice job attacking Denver off screen actions designed for the ballhandler to get to the paint. Brown gets all the way to the rim for the layup here:

The Celtics continue to do quite well scoring off ATO sets. This play opened the second quarter. Boston clears the entire left side of the floor for Jayson Tatum to work. By the time the help comes, it’s too late:

There is no reason for Denver to switch this. Jaylen Brown doesn’t even set a screen. But Denver does switch, and Tatum goes right at Michael Porter Jr for the and-1:

This is another ATO. This time, Boston clears the left side of the floor for Jaylen Brown. Brown gets to the rim against Aaron Gordon for the nice finish:

4. Another “good process” thing from the Celtics was that they went to some post-ups with the longball not falling. It wasn’t a good game for him, but a Marcus Smart post-up usually generates a good shot like this:

To open the second half, Boston did something they should do more: Post Jayson Tatum against smaller defenders. You have to love how Tatum gets right into it here and powers through the smaller defender for the layup:

5. Rob Williams had a fun sequence at the end of the first quarter. You can almost see Bones Hyland go through the “Oh crap! How is he here?” process on this play as Williams causes the turnover:

Last game, we saw Williams take a couple of dribbles off a fake DHO and drive to the rim. Jayson Tatum doesn’t hesitate to post Williams against Hyland here and Williams uses his size to get the layup:

The first clip is fun, but we’ve seen Williams do that stuff for years. The second clip is legitimately exciting, because it’s further proof Williams is rounding out his offensive game.

6. So…that rim delay. Following a big dunk from Rob Williams on a lob, the basket in front of the Nuggets bench was off. The Celtics pointed it out and the arena crew went about fixing it.

The challenge was the fix took nearly 45 minutes and it still didn’t appear to be perfect afterwards. That led to some postgame griping from the Boston side.

The bent rim had nothing to do with the Celtics losing. They were already down when it happened and things basically played out evenly over the final 6:43 of the game.

In the end, it lengthened the game out, but it really had no impact otherwise. Any complaining about how it was handled feels hollow. Any complaining suggesting it had an impact on who won or lost is just sour grapes.

7. Let’s get into some “bad process” stuff for the Celtics from this one.

This is more of an observation than anything actually bad. This game called for more of the two-big lineups. No, this isn’t more clamoring for Robert Williams to return to the starting five. There’s already plenty of that out there, and who starts is a very overblown thing. Unless you are constantly in 10-to-15-point holes by the first subs, who starts doesn’t really matter.

That said, two of Al Horford, Grant Williams and Rob Williams should have been on the floor together at all times in this one. Joe Mazzulla went to it, but by the time he did, it was too late. Denver was already rolling offensively.

Rob Williams is clearly fine and ready to go. Not that the Celtics shouldn’t still be somewhat cautious with his minutes, but he’s ready for more. That should open the door to return back to the dominant Rob-Horford-Tatum-Brown-Smart lineup of a year ago. If not to start, at least for a lot more minutes.

8. Part of why Boston should have played two bigs more, is Nikola Jokic was carving them up off double-teams. The decision to double Jokic was also a change from previous games. Boston has generally preferred to guard the two-time MVP straight up. The theory is that if he wants to take contested shots, it’s better than letting him pick out shooters and cutters.

For whatever reason, Boston chose to double Jokic a lot, especially early. That resulted in good looks for the other Nuggets. This isn’t even a good double by Jaylen Brown. It’s a reckless gamble and no one makes an attempt to rotate to the shooter:

Jokic almost forces this double by dribbling into it, but Jayson Tatum doesn’t commit to making things hard on the big man. The result is an easy dime to Aaron Gordon:

No one stops Jokic, but Grant Williams has defended him better than most. There’s no need for Derrick White to help off Michael Porter Jr., who was having a hot shooting night, here. Also, Rob Williams sort of gets caught in the middle and doesn’t really defend anyone before jumping at Porter very late:

9. Getting out to shooters late was an issue all game long. Denver was a whopping 17-of-27 on open to wide-open three-pointers in this game. As you can see in a couple of the clips above, Boston wasn’t in the picture very often.

If the strategy was to force the other guys to beat you, while trying to contain Nikola Jokic, that’s fine. But that strategy wasn’t working from very early on in the first quarter.

It’s also notable that the Celtics continue to let their own shooting woes impact their defense. They miss a shot, hang their heads, don’t get back and the defense is scrambled. Or, when things aren’t going well, they simply don’t make those extra efforts to get out to shooters at the arc.

10. In the end, losing to the Nuggets in Denver isn’t a bad thing. They’ve got one of the best home records in the NBA. The Nuggets are also in first place in the Western Conference.

Yet, this loss feels disappointing because the Celtics did so much well. Alas, “make or miss” is a real thing that happens.

The Celtics now head to play at the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder aren’t a good team, but they have enough talent to trip up good teams who don’t show up. Boston can’t go in expecting that simply arriving at the arena is enough. With a big game looming against Luka Doncic in Dallas on Thursday, the Celtics need to be focused on the next task on Tuesday in Oklahoma City first. Otherwise, it’ll be a two-game slide heading into playing Doncic and the Mavericks.

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