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Concerning trend or anomaly game?

With a chance at the #1 seed fading away and amidst a dogfight for #2, this could be an identity-defining road trip for the Celtics.

Boston Celtics v Houston Rockets Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Remember when we were all complaining about the three-pointers? Well, hitting 38-of-91 against the Portland Trail Blazers and Atlanta Hawks seemed to assuage those concerns for the weekend. But after a 111-109 frustrating loss to the lowly Houston Rockets on Monday night, a new topic du jour has developed. Actually, topics plural:

“Those are concerning, the margins,” head coach Joe Mazzulla losing the analytics battle and ultimately the game in Houston. “The free throws, the rebounding, the turnovers, the second chances. Regardless of who you play, that’s playoff basketball at its finest. It’s the ability to win those situations, so it’s concerning that we’re inconsistent. We have to be committed in those [situations], regardless of who we’re playing, regardless of the situation, regardless of how many games are left. You have to be committed to those [situations].”

These aren’t the playoffs just yet.

Against the Rockets, the worst team in basketball — well, now the second worst team in basketball after beating Boston, the Celtics loss all those margins and for a team that’s battled inconsistency since the All-Star break with a 5-5 record, those margins are beginning to be the difference between winning and losing games.

Offensive rebounds (and second chance points):
Rockets 15 (17), Celtics 10 (10)

Since Robert Williams went down with a hamstring injury, Joe Mazzulla has elected to almost go exclusively small to the point where Grant Williams has seemingly been taken out of the rotation (although he did play eight minutes last night). They lost the offensive rebounding battle in all four games. Coincidence? Probably not, but let’s not forget that the Celtics have been the best defensive rebounding team in the league for the entire season. The best with a defensive rebounding rate of 74.7%. While the mini-trend exists in Williams’ absence, for the most part, this has been a team that has controlled the boards.

Free throws attempts:
Rockets 27, Celtics 21

The Celtics are not a free throw shooting team. Some of that is a by product of their analytical approach to the game and subsequently, how many threes they take; they’re 2nd in attempts from behind the arc and 26th in attempts from the charity stripe. Fans of the 80’s and 90’s might scoff at those numbers and say that you’ll never win in the playoffs when the game gets slower and more physical, but that frankly is part of Boston’s approach and identity. What is a little concerning is that there has been a marked drop off month-to-month. In December and January, Boston averaged 23.3 trips to the free throw line a night. In February, that dropped to a season-low 17.9, but has risen to 21 this month. A handful of gimmes may not seem like a lot, but last night, when their outside shot wasn’t falling, a few gimmes would have helped.

Rockets 11, Celtics 14

Fourteen isn’t a bad number. In a playoff game, I’d take fourteen turnovers in a rough and tumble postseason battle. Boston ranks 7th in fewest turnovers per game at 13.5, but just 26th in opponents’ turnovers and 21st in points off turnovers. Instead, they’re switching defense has a “bend, don’t break” mentality which has been good for fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency (111.1 points per 100 possessions).

But in a game where that defense didn’t really show up until the final four minutes and Boston was already losing so many battles in the trenches, those handful of turnovers — including the heartbreaking one above that shouldn’t have reset the shot clock, but I digress — lost the Celtics the war.

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