1. The Boston Celtics dropped yet another fall-from-ahead game at the Utah Jazz on Saturday night. Blowing leads is not something that is unique to the Celtics, even if it seems like a troublesome Boston-centric thing. Because of the way the game is played now, a lead of 20 points is rarely safe until deep into the fourth quarter, and that’s across the entire NBA.
This loss also came on a back-to-back with travel that included a rare West-to-Mountain time zone change. And the Celtics were without Al Horford and Marcus Smart, while continuing to be without Rob Williams.
None of those things are excuses. The Celtics had a big lead and could (and should) have won against a team that is battling for a spot in the Play-In Tournament.
But those are some of the reasons that Boston lost. And there are a whole lot more reasons. Let’s dive into those now.
2. Without Rob Williams, rebounding has been an issue for the Celtics. Take Al Horford out of the mix and remove Marcus Smart (who is generally pretty solid at boxing out bigger players) and that issue is exacerbated tenfold.
That said, Utah bludgeoned Boston on the boards. The Jazz grabbed 17 offense rebounds and outscored the Celtics 20-8 in second-chance points. In a one-point game, that’s a massive margin.
Despite the recent struggles, Boston still ranks as the top defensive rebounding team in the NBA. But there are nights it really doesn’t seem like it. And that’s clearly being propped up by some early-season success. No matter what, it’s something that needs to get solved with big, physical teams like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cleveland and New York looming in the playoffs.
3. Where was Derrick White during the fourth quarter? Unless White is dealing with an undisclosed injury, and nothing has been shared, there is no reason he should be sitting for an entire final period. This especially true on a night when Boston didn’t have Marcus Smart and was struggling to contain the Utah ballhandlers.
This tweet from Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston is baffling:
The Celtics have played 162 crunch-time minutes this season. Derrick White has been on the floor for 55.4 of them (34.2%)— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) March 19, 2023
Boston has played 60 overtime minutes this season. White has been on the floor for 16.3 of them (27.2%)
White has been somewhere between the Celtics third- and fourth-best player this season, depending on where you place Al Horford in the mix behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Sure, Boston has great guard depth with Smart and Malcolm Brogdon. But White needs to be on the floor more often late in games. And this decision is something that Joe Mazzulla should really expound on more than just his standard “Matchups” answer.
4. Related to the above, Boston couldn’t control the Jazz ballhandlers all game long. Now, controlling John Stockton, Deron Williams and Donovan Mitchell is a tough task, but…What’s that? Oh! It was Talen Horton-Tucker and Kris Dunn?
Sarcasm and snide aside, it was a bad defensive effort on that front. Only Derrick White did a solid job of keeping either Jazz guard from getting into the paint at will. He got overpowered a couple of times by Horton-Tucker, but that’s what THT does. But, for the most part, White kept the ballhandlers in front and forced passes or tough looks.
Part of this was soft-switching. This happens so often, that it has to be a schematic coaching decision to soft-switch. A soft-switch, or no-resistance switch, is when the defense switches despite there not being a screen, or before the screen can be set.
The Celtics have soft-switched for years, but it’s usually more along the lines of handing off a cutter or off-ball screener to the next guy, as they play a sort of pseudo matchup zone defense. Now, it’s happening with on-ball actions more than ever. In general, it’s fine, because the Celtics trust their guys to hold their own when switched. But, in a game like this one where no one could keep the ballhandlers controlled, it called for a strategy or scheme change, and none ever came.
5. These were Jayson Tatum’s last two shots of the game. With Boston nursing a one-point lead, Tatum dribbled the air out of the ball before taking this awkward, contested, one-legged fallaway as the shot-clock expired:
Then, down a point, while trying to conserve the 2-for-1, Boston went to this look for Tatum on an ATO:
Tatum is Boston’s best player. That’s true no matter how well Jaylen Brown is currently playing. But Tatum was 4-for-10 before those two shots. Utah’s mix of funky defenses and double-teams (more on that later) had Tatum out of rhythm.
To add to the curious decision, Tatum has been brutal as a pullup shooter this season. He’s well under 30% on the year. And that’s a two-year trend now.
Yes, Tatum has been a crunch-time killer for most of his career. But Boston could, and should, have gotten better looks than those two shots.
6. Let’s go to the final play of the game. Here it is:
Postgame, Joe Mazzulla, Grant Williams and Jayson Tatum all confirmed that what was drawn up was Williams catching and executing a dribble handoff with Tatum. The idea was to free Tatum up for the game-winner.
Obviously, that’s not what happened. Where did it all go wrong?
First, Lauri Markkanen, or Will Hardy (or both), made the right call to have Markkanen drop off Malcolm Brogdon as the inbounder. That allowed Markkanen to jump Wiliams cut, which blew up the idea of the DHO.
Williams backdoored Markkanen a bit to get the catch. From there, everything went worse. The DHO was now gone, because it would have taken too long for Williams to pivot back and for Tatum to get to him. Tatum started the play in the backcourt and barely moved into the frontcourt by the conclusion. That spacing wasn’t good right from the start, blown up DHO or not.
Williams can’t pitch it back to Brogdon, who would have been wide-open, because Brogdon never bothered to get inbounds on the play.
Williams said he maybe could have passed to Sam Hauser in the corner, but that’s a tough angle with the long arms of Kelly Olynyk, who already had deflected several passes, stunting toward Williams and Markkanen trailing.
Williams had no angle to pass to Jaylen Brown, who was, once again, cast a bystander away from the play.
In full fairness, Williams could, and probably should, have taken a pullup or a floater or something. He said so himself. Challenging Walker Kessler, who is already one of the league’s best rim protectors as a rookie, was a tall task, no pun intended.
Mostly, this is now a known play design from Mazzulla. The only variations are if Tatum catches it direct on the run, catches it deep and dribbles into the shot himself (like he did on the previous play) or if Tatum catches off a pass/handoff from a teammate. It’s a guarantee that Hardy had his team schooled and ready, thus Markkanen blowing up the initial action.
Grant Williams could have done better, and he said so himself, but the Celtics have to put him in a spot to do better too. And that starts with being creative and running something different at the end of games.
7. Related to the above: Jaylen Brown is not the NBA’s best decoy to be used to pull a defender away from the play. He’s a star player. Relegating him to watching off-ball and away from the play on ever late-game action is old, stale and bad. It’s beyond time to involve him in one of these end-game plays. Either let him get the shot or make the decision to pass.
Or, and this is a truly wild suggestion, maybe run an action that involves the two All-Stars on the roster working together to create a look?
8. A lot of the above happened in the last minute of the game, but Boston lost this one just as much in the second and third quarters as they did in the final minute.
The Celtics got sloppy about midway through the second period. They let the Jazz close the half with momentum. The third quarter was all Utah, until Boston regained control late. Then, despite teammates and Joe Mazzulla yelling, Jaylen Brown lost track of his internal clock:
That allowed Kris Dunn to get up the final good look of the period and he hit a three-pointer to cut Boston’s lead back to just three points. It was a bad and unforced turnover that led directly to three points for Utah. It’s often said that you don’t lose a one-point game on the last play, but on any number of plays throughout the game. This was a good example of that theory.
9. The other place where Boston struggled, and it happened from midway through the second quarter and onward, was against Utah’s zone. Maybe inspired by March Madness, Will Hardy coached this one almost like a college game. He mixed in a 2-3 zone, a 1-3-1 zone, a matchup zone and some funky double-teams on Jayson Tatum.
The result was Tatum was off-kilter all game. This was the most diagnosing he’s had to do in a game since last season’s playoffs.
It also took the Celtics a long time to figure out the Jazz zones. Once they did, they started to break them down and got some good looks. But that’s on Joe Mazzulla and the coaching staff. Sure, an odd look like a 1-3-1 might take a couple of plays to see, and then a call or two from the sideline to sort out. But we’re talking minutes of gametime here before Boston figured out what was happening. That’s a lack of preparedness, recognition and ability to figure it out on the fly that was ultimately fatal.
10. So…the Celtics clinched their ninth-consecutive playoff appearance, despite the loss. That’s something and it’s an accomplishment. No one will celebrate it, because simply making the playoffs isn’t anything that anyone wants anymore. And that’s fair, but it’s still an accomplishment worth at least minimally recognizing.
There were also some good things out of this game. Grant Williams turned in a very strong game. One so good that you wished better for him on that final play, as it would have capped off a fairytale type of night. Luke Kornet and Mike Muscala turned in some good minutes off the bench, including in some weird lineups where they had to play together due to lack of personnel. Malcolm Brogdon is back in rhythm, and he looked good again too.
But all of that is silver-lining stuff that no one really wants to hear or read. Boston could have made up a little more ground on Milwaukee atop the conference, and instead they wake up in third place (by win percentage, despite having the tiebreaker over Philadelphia). There are only 10 games left, and instead of rounding into form, the Celtics seem to limping to the finish line.
On the plus side, Boston now has two days off and Rob Williams might play on Tuesday at the Sacramento Kings to finish the road trip. And it’s a road trip the Celtics can still return home from with a 4-2 record. After a needed day of rest and a much-needed practice day, Tuesday is another chance in a series of dwindling opportunities for Boston to find themselves again before the regular season comes to a close.