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Never warmed up: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Suns

On a frigid night outside, Boston was cold inside TD Garden too

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

1. On an absolutely frigid night in Boston, things were freezing inside TD Garden too. The Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns never quite found the shooting touch, but Phoenix found their energy to pull away from Boston a couple of different times.

At points in both halves, the Celtics looked like they were sleepwalking through the game. Joe Mazzulla called it “inconsistent execution”, while Jaylen Brown said Boston was “going through the motions”. Either way, it was an annoying performance.

For large portions of the game, the Celtics looked like they were at the end of a five-games-in-seven-nights stretch or something. In those situations, a team having low energy is understandable.

But Boston was in the midst of a stretch where they played two games in a week. The Celtics played the Los Angeles Lakers last Saturday, then had three days off before crushing the Brooklyn Nets. This game came on the regular one-day of rest, but Boston now has the weekend off before next playing on Monday. That means from Sunday to Sunday, the guys in green will have played just two games.

And that means there is no excuse to play without energy.

2. Jaylen Brown has had a terrific season. His scoring game is the best it has ever been. It’s approaching a level where he’s as good as anyone in the league at putting up points. He’s also rebounding better than ever and rounding out his playmaking game.

On the other end of the floor, Brown is at his best when he’s on-ball or pressed into a ball-denial role above the break. He did a wonderful job of denying Stephen Curry the ball in Boston’s win over the Golden State Warriors a few weeks ago.

But when Brown is asked to simply guard his man away from the ball, things like this happen far too often:

Deandre Ayton had done all of the Suns scoring to this point, so it’s fair to have an extra eye on him. But Brown had no idea Mikal Bridges had slid down to the corner, and less of an idea that Bridges was cutting out of the strongside corner.

These sorts of lapses cost you against good teams. In the playoffs, where games slow down and every possession means more, this can be the difference between a win and a loss.

In a deserving All-Star season, and possible All-NBA year, Brown really needs to clean stuff like this up.

3. The above being said, Jaylen Brown was the only Celtic who showed up to score in the first eight minutes or so of the game. Boston started out dreadfully cold from the floor, minus Brown, who had 10 points to open the game.

Sadly, this three-pointer on the first play of the game wasn’t an indicator of things to come, but it was still good play-design. Whenever Jayson Tatum screens for Brown, or vice versa, good things seem to happen:

Brown is better than ever at attacking bigs on switches, and that comes from his versatility as a scorer. When he was younger, Brown would get the big on a switch, back the ball out, put his head down and drive all the way to the rim at 100 MPH. And it was every time he got that situation.

Here, Brown got Deandre Ayton on the switch, backed the ball out and when Ayton laid back, Brown pulled up for the three:

We showed you Brown losing Mikal Bridges earlier. Here’s the difference when he’s up and pressuring his man. Simply put, Brown is a different, and better, defender when he’s guarding above the break:

4. The Celtics got down by as many as 20 points in the first half. They eventually chipped away at that to end the half and throughout the third quarter. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, Boston had the ball and a chance to take the lead. Malcolm Brogdon missed a floater and in a very real sense, the game was over.

We didn’t realize it in the moment, considering there was 11:44 to play when Brogdon missed, but the Suns were about to snatch back control and put the game away. And they did so with a lineup that featured two Two-Way players (Saben Lee and Ish Wainright) and two players who are only occasionally in the rotation (Dario Saric and Jock Landale).

Phoenix went on a 14-2 run to open the fourth quarter to push their lead from one-point to 13 points over a three-minute stretch. Boston never seriously threatened again.

This play was emblematic of the lack of energy all game from Boston. We’re not going to blame Luke Kornet for Jock Landale outrunning him for this and-1 dunk, because Kornet exited with some sort of injury right after this play. But no one else is back. That’s a center outrunning the entire defense right to the front of the rim:

Good steal by Grant Williams to start this play, but there’s a reason coaches preach from youth league onward to never blind-save the ball under your own hoop:

Landale missed a three here and Boston let the ball bounce all the way back out to him. From there, he swung it to Damion Lee who drilled a backbreaking triple:

Three plays that were all preventable, and all helped fuel a Phoenix run.

5. Related to middle video of the above takeaway…what happened to Grant Williams?

Through December, Williams looked like someone the Celtics were going to have to hand a big contract to as a restricted free agent. Williams was playing the key third-big role and putting up some impressive stats. Williams averaged 9.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in 27.8 minutes per game off Boston’s bench. And he did so on 52/44/83 shooting splits.

When the calendar turned, so did Williams’ play. In 17 games from January 1 onward, Williams is shooting just 40.2% from the field and his three-point shooting has dipped to 36.2%. In addition, Williams hasn’t been nearly as effective on defense either.

Maybe it’s just a slump. That happens. But maybe Williams is pressing a bit and starting to feel the pressure of playing for his next deal. Whatever it is, he and the Celtics need to get it figured out.

6. Related to all of the above: Boston has big problems when Jayson Tatum sits. For the season, the numbers are pretty stark.

The Celtics have an offensive rating of 120.8 when Tatum is on the floor, which would be the best mark in the NBA by healthy margin.

When Tatum sits, the Celtics offensive rating drops to 110.3. That would rank 28th in the league, ahead of only bottom-dwellers Houston and Charlotte. That -10.5 difference is one of the largest in the entire NBA among key rotation players.

The falloff translates to the other end of the floor too. Boston’s defensive rating when Tatum is on the court is 111.3. Which is right around the Celtics overall ranking of fifth in the NBA. When Tatum sits, the defensive rating drops to 114, which is about the league average.

Overall, the Celtics hold a +9.5 net difference when Tatum is on the floor. When he’s resting, Boston is -3.7. That’s a 13.2 margin. Again, that’s basically the biggest split for a key rotation player in the entire league.

To put it very simply: The Celtics are great when Jayson Tatum is playing. Historically good on offense and very good on defense. When Jayson Tatum sits, the offense is terrible and the defense is average.

7. We’ll continue to link things together here to say: The Celtics need a wing. Boston can’t continue to bleed points the way they do when Jayson Tatum sits, and they need cover for Jaylen Brown as well.

As it stands right now, Joe Mazzulla can barely take them off the floor, never mind resting Tatum and Brown for a game here and there. If Luke Kornet’s injury turns out to be something serious, then the Celtics will need to look at adding another big. But adding a fourth-big to play over Kornet isn’t nearly the need that adding another wing is. It’s really not even close.

8. This one is simple: For the first time in a long time, Boston was beaten up on the glass. The Suns grabbed 10 offensive rebounds compared to just three for the Celtics. That’s likely related to that lack of energy we’ve already talked about, as Phoenix isn’t a dominant rebounding team.

9. To close with a positive: Rob Williams looks like Rob Williams. He had some of those “Whoa!” plays in this one.

Unless you are quick and explosive enough to match him, challenging Williams straight up in isolation is a bad idea:

The old-timers are going to say things like “Bill Russell would have tipped this to a teammate”, but every once and a while, Russell admitted he would just destroy a shot to send a message. Williams tried to do that here:

10. The Celtics aren’t as good as the team that demoralized the Nets so badly that Kyrie Irving asked for a trade. Boston also isn’t anywhere near as bad as they looked against Phoenix. They’re a very good, but not great team. And that’s fine, as it doesn’t look like the NBA has any great teams this season.

The concern for now isn’t as much about pushing for the 60-win mark. That’s a very arbitrary marker that doesn’t really mean anything. The concern is holding off the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, who are both just one game behind in the loss column.

The Celtics have six games before the All-Star break, including ones against both Milwaukee and Philadelphia. They’ve also got three games against the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets, and sandwiched in the middle is a Super Bowl Sunday matinee against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Boston can still hit the All-Star break in a great spot, but they need to take care of their own business. Given the way this season has gone so far, it’s a good bet they will. And that starts again on Monday at Detroit.

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