“We’re not playing great, but we’re still in it.”
After Friday’s win over the Toronto Raptors, head coach Joe Mazzulla talked about how this refrain got the Celtics through timeouts in a game where they looked like a Costco-brand version of themselves. He stressed how he wanted his guys to exist in that space of not feeling their best, and then to figure out ways to attack that.
Much has been made—and I have made much of—the ludicrous power of this Celtics team when they play their best. But Friday saw the Celtics win despite several statistical shortcomings, including a couple that have been known to torpedo their chances of victory.
Every year, the Celtics seem to have a make-or-break stat that can predict wins with alarming consistency. Last year, if the Celtics shot 40 percent or more from beyond the arc, they won pretty much every time. The previous year, the same was true about keeping turnovers below seven.
The jury is still out on what this year’s make-or-break stat will be, but Friday night saw the Celtics confront these two skeletons in their statistical closet and come out on top. They missed 30 entire three-balls, going under 35 percent, and turned the ball over 13 times. Moreover, the Celtics didn’t have a single player dominate scoring, with usual suspect Jayson Tatum going 8-22 from the field and 1-11 from beyond the arc.
That sounds like an obituary I would have written last year. It has all the greatest hits of a Celtics loss: subpar shooting, turnovers, and an ice-cold Tatum. But they managed to overcome these hurdles by spreading out their scoring, with seven guys reaching double figures and Jaylen Brown the lone man reaching 20.
Mazzulla chalked up the success to late game execution, but I would go even further. The most important thing you can execute is making a shot, and the Celtics hit three huge ones down the stretch.
Check out this three-ball by Al Horford—notable elite shooter—who was left insultingly wide open by the Raptors collapsing three defenders to the paint on Tatum’s dribble drive. This seemed to be their scheme all night, and Al took advantage. You can also hear Drake calling Payton Pritchard a crypto scammer if you turn the sound up.
The Raptors insistence on denying the paint is probably a result of the Celtics making more than 75 percent of their two-point shots the last two times they played the Raptors. Yes, that stat is just as ridiculous as it sounds, and I imagine new coach Darko Rajakovic wasn’t the most interested in that happening again.
Next up, we have the ever-glorious Derrick White, who was simply forgotten about as four Raptors swarmed the paint to stop Tatum. I imagine this is the result of completely blown defensive rotations, but I imagine the Raptors blew them because they were instructed to allow absolutely nothing in the paint. Why else would Chris Boucher be doing… whatever it is he’s doing here?
The Philadelphia 76ers tried this same defensive concept on Wednesday, trying to eliminate finishing angles by either parking Joel Embiid in the paint or rotating help defenders off of the corners. Essentially, both teams were daring the Celtics to win the game from beyond the arc.
Leaving a wide open shooter on the wing or in the corner is a defensive strategy I like to call the “we are overmatched and have no other ideas on how to stop you” plan. It was most famously employed by the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the 2022 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when Grant Williams cashed seven threes because nobody was even pretending to guard him.
It sounds pretty terrible when you say it out loud, but it’s not the worst idea in the world if it works out. The Raptors left several Celtics extremely wide open on the first three possessions of the game, but the Celtics started out 1-6 from deep.
Had they gone 5-6, the Celtics would have opened up a huge lead in a not-huge amount of time. But since they missed, the Raptors created five positive possessions that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s a bit nuts and absurdly risky, but it kept the Raptors in the game for a long stretch. But then White put the kibosh on that.
This defense is the magnum opus of leaving a guy wide open. Jrue Holiday was already double-teamed, but entering the paint must have set off a tripwire because Pascal Siakam immediately ignored White in favor of bringing a third defender. That’s certainly one of the worst strategies of all time.
I’m always cognizant of whether shots are good or bad in a vacuum, because I think a lot of shot-quality analysis is based on whether or not they go in. All three of those shots were excellent looks, and the Raptors were tactically okay with that.
But there’s a difference between a risky strategy and actually executing it well. At least for Horford’s shot, Boucher was making an understandable decision to bring help. But the paint was covered on the other two. Boucher’s second rotation could be an attempt to seal off a passing lane, but Tatum made an excellent pass. The third one… just made no sense.
These were big shots, and the Celtics actually made them. I have an irrational hatred of the phrase “make or miss league,” but that’s what the Raptors forced the Celtics to do Friday night. Despite an initial slump, they kept firing, and hit shots when they counted.
And I actually believed they were going to go in, which is a development I will be monitoring going forward.