1. The Boston Celtics have a habit of blowing off bad losses. There’s the usual “We got good shots, just didn’t make them.” Or “We have to be better next time, and we will.” Or sometimes it’s just the old “Every season you have nights like this.”
Here’s the thing: All of that is true.
Here’s the other thing: Everyone is sick of hearing it.
The Washington Wizards aren’t a good team. They were missing several key players. The Celtics should have won this game, and instead they got blown out.
It’s fair to insert here that Boston has rarely been blown out this season. They have the least 20-point losses in the NBA. So, this isn’t a regular occurrence or anything.
It’s also fair to note that the Celtics do usually bounce back by being better moving forward.
But losing games they should win is a frustrating regular thing. If the Celtics had taken care of business against the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz or Washington Wizards, they’d be in the mix for the top overall seed in the NBA Playoffs. Instead, that’s probably off the table.
Let’s dive into the latest disappointing loss.
2. The Celtics defensive effort was poor. There’s no other way to put that. It wasn’t just execution, but the scheme was also weird.
Maybe Boston was pre-switching actions, or maybe they have such little respect for Kristaps Porzingis that they didn’t feel a need to put size on him. Whatever the reason, having the single big (Al Horford or Rob Williams) floating while Porzingis took smaller players into the mid-post area was a bad choice. Porzingis repeatedly turned and shot over the smaller guys or drew a double-team and set up his teammates for good looks.
This was a combination of a bad scheme, one that was never really moved away from, and poor effort and execution. Predictably, that led to one of the worst defensive games Boston had played this season.
3. Two other things led to the poor defense. The Celtics couldn’t control drivers all game. And it’s not like Washington is stacked with elite off-the-dribble players. This was the Wizards shot chart:
31-of-45 shooting in the paint, including 19-of-22 at the rim for Washington.
That’s ridiculous. And these weren’t great setups or getting mashed in the post or anything. It was Deni Avdija and a host of Wizards guards breaking Boston down off the bounce to get to the rim over and over.
Essentially, the Celtics let the Wizards run a layup line from the tip, and that never really stopped.
4. Adding to the frustration, was the handful of times Boston forced Washington kick the ball out, they didn’t make much effort to get to the Wizards shooters.
Washington took 37 three-pointers. Of those 37 attempts, 35 were classified as open or wide-open.
That means Boston reasonably contested two three-point shots. Two. In a full game.
That’s simply not good enough and a flashing red warning light of low effort.
5. This one play summed up the night better than a whole host of clips ever could:
Corey Kispert missed the initial layup off a cut. His momentum carried him out of bounds. Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart are all more or less right there for the rebound. None got it. Kispert outhustled all of them and got the easy putback.
6. It was a little surprising that we didn’t get the “I liked the shots we got” direct quote from Joe Mazzulla. It’s been his standby on nights where the Celtics miss a lot of three-pointers.
Like a lot of the other things we’ve called out, Mazzulla isn’t wrong. Boston continues to generate really good shots almost every game. About once every five games, those shots don’t fall.
The challenge isn’t so much that the Celtics continue to shoot so many threes. No one wants to hear that, but an open three-pointer for a good shooter is still a good shot, even if that guy is 0-for-5 that night. Law of averages is a real thing.
What is a problem is what else happens on the bad shooting nights. On offense, and handful of guys (Al Horford, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White, Grant Williams and sometimes even Jayson Tatum) get tentative on taking the next one. Those record scratches throw the offense off-kilter and everything gets messy.
The other thing that happens is the misses carry over to the other end of the floor. A guy misses, heads drop, and the other team finds a good shot. Shoulders slump about allowing a score and the Celtics offense bogs down. It’s a vicious, spiraling cycle.
The last thing that happens: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and sometimes Malcolm Brogdon and Marcus Smart, all start to try to bring the team back themselves. We end up with no-pass or one-pass possessions and everything gets even messier.
It’s late-March. The playoffs are less than two weeks away. The Celtics have to figure out how to play through bad-shooting nights without missed shots dragging the whole team down. And to be completely honest, they should have figured it out a long time ago. This is equal parts on the players and the coaches for this still being an issue after 76 games.
7. On the plus side, the deep bench guys did alright. They changed the energy and made a mini-run at the Wizards. It was good to see Joe Mazzulla stick with them instead of going back to the low-energy regulars when the game got back within striking distance.
In the end, it didn’t matter and Boston still got crushed. But maybe this gives Mazzulla some faith that if he just needs to change the energy and spark his regulars, he can go to his bench for that jolt.
8. The one seed in the Eastern Conference is very likely off the table. It’s a shame, but that big matchup on Thursday at the Milwaukee Bucks is unlikely to even have an impact on the seeding.
That doesn’t mean it’s not an important game. Boston can still make a statement by winning in Milwaukee. They can show that they won’t be afraid to play there in the playoffs without homecourt advantage. And that looks like a good possibility, because the Celtics have fumbled away any realistic chance of running down the Bucks for the top seed.
9. Following the Milwaukee game, this is the Celtics schedule:
· vs Jazz
· at 76ers (after three days off)
· vs Raptors (final back-to-back)
· vs Raptors
· vs Hawks
It’s not an easy stretch, nor is it overly daunting. For the Celtics, these games are a chance to find a rhythm ahead of the playoffs, as three of the four teams look like they’ll be postseason teams, and the Jazz aren’t quite finished yet.
It’s also an opportunity for Boston to focus on rest and health. Even with their uneven play recently, the Celtics should have the second seed just about locked up. A win a Philadelphia would really clinch that. That could make that first Raptors game a good chance to rest some guys on the back-to-back. Then, Boston can play out the second Raptors game with a regular rotation. The finale can be handled as case-dependent. If it matters for seeding, you play it to win. If it doesn’t, then you sit everyone who will see major playoff minutes and focus on Game 1 the following weekend.
10. The Celtics have the Bucks next. It’s still a big game, even if it’s not quite as big as it could have been. Maybe Boston gets lucky, and Milwaukee stumbles a couple of times unexpectedly and the one seed is still in play. That only really matters if the Celtics beat the Bucks on Thursday.
But as the players and coaches have told us ad nauseum, they are more concerned about how they are playing than seeding. This last game wasn’t a good example of that, because it looked like no one really cared very much about either thing. There are six games left to figure it out and get it right. That’s the focus now.