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Another bad loss: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Rockets

Boston was again their own worst enemy in a loss to struggling Houston

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

1. This was a bad loss for the Boston Celtics. There’s no explaining that away. You can try and be positive and say “They don’t care about games in mid-March”, but the reality is that the Houston Rockets are one of the worst teams in the NBA. The Celtics should not be losing games to the Rockets.

When asked if his team takes too many three-pointers, Joe Mazzulla was defensive of Boston’s approach to shot selection. Mazzulla had no issue with the number of threes the Celtics took, even in a game where they seemingly got to the basket at will.

Instead, Mazzulla said the reasons Boston lost were fouling, rebounding, turnovers and second-chance points.

It’s hard to find much fault with that assessment. Yet, getting downhill a little more would have been nice too.

But let’s break down where Mazzulla said the Celtics failed.

2. We’re gong to start with turnovers, because it’s the easiest place to start. Boston had 14 giveaways for the games, which isn’t an overly large amount. It’s actually right in range of the Celtics season-average for turnovers.

What was frustrating were the types of turnovers Boston had. We’ve picked three to show a lack of care and focus with the ball.

This is just awful ballhandling from Jayson Tatum, and it led directly to an and-1 for the Rockets:

Again, bad ballhandling, this time from Malcolm Brogdon. And, again, it got Houston to the free throw line:

Jaylen Brown had a terrific game (more on that later), but he wasn’t immune to the bad ballhandling bug either:

All three of these clips have two things in common: A lack of care with the ball and a lack of respect for the opponent. These aren’t great steals. It’s Boston putting the ball on a platter because of an “it’s just Houston” approach to the game.

3. Overall, it was a terrible passing game for the Celtics. They had just 19 assists on 39 baskets. A below-50% assist-to-basket rate is never a formula for winning.

Boston was all too content to bring the ball up and immediately go into ISO mode. Jaylen Brown had success with this. Malcolm Brogdon largely did too. Jayson Tatum couldn’t make a jumper, so his night was a lot more mixed.

In total, upon a second watch of the game, the Celtics had over 30 one- or zero-pass possessions. That’s way too many plays of guys trying to do too much on their own.

4. Let’s get to the rebounding, or lack thereof on the defense end. The Rockets had 15 offensive boards in this game. Many of them were the same sort of stuff we’ve seen from the Celtics all year. Not blocking out, not running back or, simply, not going up and getting the ball.

This is just sloppy. The initial defense is great. Boston forces (invites?) a contested, midrange pullup. But no one gets a body on the Rockets and Jabari Smith Jr. ends up with an easy putback:

This play starts with a turnover, but how it ends is even worse. Four Rockets are down the floor against one, or maybe two (if you count the late-arriving Sam Hauser) Celtics. Houston misses the first shot, but KJ Martin is there for the tip-in and-1:

Not boxing out on free throws is basically a cardinal sin in basketball:

Somewhere between three or four Celtics could have put a body on Tari Eason here. None did:

This is just awful. Jalen Green is one of the smallest players on the floor. There are multiple Celtics in the paint, but it’s Green who outworked all of them for the ball. Multiple times too:

5. Houston used those 15 offensive rebounds to put up 17 second-chance points on 7-of-14 shooting.

To be fair, Boston got 10 offensive rebounds of their own, and got a couple of team rebounds too. But the Celtics were just 4-of-12 on second-chance shooting for 10 points.

That seven-point margin loomed pretty large in a two-point loss.

6. Let’s talk about the fouling.

This isn’t going to be popular, because everyone now knows who Ben Taylor is, but this game wasn’t unfairly called. The Celtics played terrible defense for large portions of the game.

Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green are both very quick, and both have herky-jerky, unpredictable games. Those are the kinds of guards Boston has struggled with all season. Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon all spent large portions of the game in foul trouble, mostly due to trying to guard Porter and Green.

Now, some of the calls were ticky-tack to be sure. But that happens in every game. The vast majority of the game, it was Boston being a step slow or reaching and grabbing as the Rockets guards went by them.

Overall, the Celtics defense has been fine this season. Offense is up all around the league, so it seems like Boston is struggling. But relative to the rest of the NBA, the Celtics are the fourth-best defense in the league.

However, as of late (especially since the All-Star break), the perimeter defense has been porous. And with playing only one big, that’s putting a ton of pressure on those non-Rob Williams bigs to clean up too much in the paint.

7. Related to the above: Boston was outscored 54-50 on points in the paint. Given the Celtics got to the rim whenever they wanted, they should have won that inside battle.

Houston had no chance of stopping Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Malcolm Brogdon or even Derrick White from getting into the lane at will. Sadly, Boston didn’t take as much advantage of that as they should have.

Also, Joe Mazzulla might have no issue with the number of three-pointers Boston took. And that’s fine. But the process to create those three-pointers was very sloppy. Instead of hitting the paint, forcing rotations and creating open looks, the Celtics took a lot of self-created threes. Those are never going to be shots that are as good, even if Boston has some guys that are really good at creating them.

8. Related to both of the above points, and also the rebounding point: Joe Mazzulla has to settle on a backup big man rotation. It’s clear that Grant Williams is out of the mix at the moment. That’s got Mazzulla experimenting nightly behind Al Horford, while Rob Williams is out. And it hasn’t gone well.

Blake Griffin got the initial call in this one, but then didn’t play after halftime. Grant Williams saw some minutes in the second quarter, but wasn’t heard from again. Luke Kornet got thrown in for almost nine minutes in the second half. And Mike Muscala hasn’t played meaningful minutes in what feels like forever.

Basketball teams are best when they have a rhythm. Then you adjust based on personnel and circumstances. But when the four main backup big men go into each game having no idea when they’ll play or how much they’ll play, or if they’ll even play at all, you have a problem.

The personnel aren’t perfect, but they’re better than the guys who got Boston to the Finals last season. Mazzulla has to figure this out over the last few weeks of the season.

9. It’s time for another likely unpopular take: Jaylen Brown should have gotten the last shot over Jayson Tatum in this game.

Brown was on all game long. He scored 43 points and was the Celtics best player by a wide margin.

Tatum is Boston’s star. He’s the closer. He deserves the last shot…almost always. And Tatum got a good look but missed a layup. Which he had also done several times earlier in the game.

Do we know Brown makes that shot? Nope. Did he deserve the chance for once? Yes.

10. The Celtics should have been heading into a matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves at 2-0 on the road trip. Instead, they are 1-1, and following the Milwaukee Bucks winning at the Sacramento Kings, Boston is now 2.5 games back, and three back in the loss column.

It’s looking more and more like the Celtics goal needs to change to holding off the Philadelphia 76ers for the second seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, as chasing down the Bucks for the top seed is becoming more challenging by the day.

This loss also means Boston really needs to win in Minnesota. That Portland-Utah back-to-back is looming as a tricky challenge. And closing the trip in Sacramento isn’t the easy win it once was.

Going into the final three games of the trip at 1-2 makes coming home after a .500 trip a challenge and coming on a winning trip, very unlikely. Back at it on Wednesday against a frisky Timberwolves team.

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