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Gotta get the groove back: 10 Takeaways from the Celtics slide

Boston has lost three of their last four games

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

1. In an effort to show that your intrepid author listens to feedback, we’re going to present these Takeaways a bit differently. This version won’t be very clip-heavy (just one), nor all that focused on the Boston Celtics double overtime loss to the New York Knicks (only tangentially). Instead, we’re going to present some things that have us really concerned as it pertains to the Celtics.

Let’s start with the general feel or vibes around the team. Jayson Tatum said the Celtics need to “get our groove back”. Al Horford said the team isn’t “locking in as much as we need to”.

Both are correct.

But the real question is: Why is that happening?

Are the Celtics tired? Possibly. A lot of guys are playing a lot of minutes. That’s on top of a long season, and some guys going mostly non-stop since the bubble. So, that could be a factor.

Are the Celtics bored? That seems more likely. Most of this group has played in big games for almost their entire careers, including last season’s Finals run. It seems like the regular season has lost its luster for Boston.

If it’s fatigue, that’s far more of a concern. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played. That’s something that Joe Mazzulla, Brad Stevens, the training staff and the sports science staff need to figure out.

It’s boredom, that’s a whole other thing. It’s akin to senioritis. You’re ready to get this phase done to move onto the next one. But if you don’t take things seriously enough in this phase, you might never get to the next one. That’s something that Boston needs to buckle down and refocus on.

2. Going back a few weeks now, the Celtics transition defense has been awful. It’s cost them several times. Sometimes it comes when guys don’t rotate back as a shot goes up. That’s not great, because it’s a focus, effort and communication thing. But that’s easy to clean up.

What’s worse are plays like this:

That basket came exactly six seconds after Derrick White hit a layup on the other end. Not having your defense set after you score is a mortal sin in the NBA. Immanuel Quickley made Boston pay for that time and time again throughout this game.

Increased focus on getting back on defense and cutting off easy scoring opportunities is a must for Boston over the last month or so before the playoffs start.

3. Next on the list of worries is what has happened with Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s shooting.

Tatum is shooting 46/35/86 this year. That’s really not bad, given the volume of difficult shots he takes. What’s worrisome is the inconsistency of Tatum’s shooting. He’s all over the board this season. Here is Tatum’s three-point shooting since the All-Star break:

· 3-for-12

· 3-for-8

· 1-for-9

· 4-for-6

· 0-for-7

· 6-for-17

There are some good nights mixed in there, but some horrific ones too. The days of Tatum shooting 40% from three over the course of the season are probably gone. He simply takes too many contested shots for that to happen. And that’s fine, as long as he doesn’t dip into the low-30s as a three-point shooter.

What could help Tatum is changing up his overall shot profile. Over the past two seasons, Tatum has all but eliminated the midrange shot from his profile. Two years ago, Tatum took 18.8% of shots in the midrange. This season that’s down to 12.3% this season. And Tatum isn’t a bad midrange shooter. He got crazy a few years ago with the long fadeaways and the like, but he’s got the size and skill to dribble into good midrange pullups more than once per game. Bring those back.

As for Brown, he’s now down to 33.8% on three-pointers, which is the lowest figure of his career. And it’s coming on a career-high 7.4 three-point attempts per game.

Now, to be fair, Brown is also taking a lot of contested shots too. He’s no longer someone the defense wants to test by leaving open. That guy is long gone. But Brown isn’t keeping up his percentage as his volume and difficulty of shots increases.

Last thing on this, but it’s an important one: Both Tatum and Brown need to trust their teammates to get them more looks. The Celtics have enough creators and ball-movers to get the stars easier looks. Brown is at a career-low on assisted three-pointers. Tatum’s has bumped back up, but it could still be a lot higher.

The stars have to carry the load and have to handle the lion’s share of the creation. But making it even a fraction easier on them would be a boon to them and the Celtics.

4. Boston is the NBA’s best defensive rebounding team. That may seem crazy, but it’s true. They are comfortably ahead of the Miami Heat atop the NBA in defensive rebound rate.

But late-game rebounding can still be a challenge for Boston. Quite regularly, Al Horford is on the floor as the lone big at the end of games. For all of the wonderful things Horford has done in his career, and continues to do, rebounding has never been a particular strength of his. It’s putting a lot on him to ask him to control the glass, especially at his age and playing the minutes he is.

But this isn’t a Horford thing. It’s a Celtics thing. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can do more on the glass late in games. All too often, they are leaking out for scoring chances. When Rob Williams is in there late, he needs to box out and find a body vs just trusting he’ll outjump everyone. Grant Williams needs to block out better too, and the guards can also crash back.

The Celtics have to stop letting late-game defensive stops go to waste by not finishing the possession with the rebound.

5. Let’s do two quick ones on Joe Mazzulla.

We’ll start with the rotations, because that’s actually the far bigger issue. First, we’ll start with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. One of them usually goes most, if not all, of the first and third quarters. The other then comes back to lead lineups made up of mostly reserves. (As an aside, this works better when it’s Tatum and the bench than Brown and the bench. The numbers have told us this for years now.)

Occasionally, if Tatum or Brown has it going, Mazzulla will ride them. That’s perfectly fine. The challenge comes with a regular game where neither is on fire. Sometimes it’s Tatum out early, sometimes it’s Brown. There’s no real consistency there.

The best teams tend to stick to a pretty rigid pattern, only adjusting if the game tells them they need to. For years now, Steve Kerr has played Stephen Curry the whole first and third quarters and brought him back in about halfway through the second and fourth quarters. It allows Curry and his teammates to develop a rhythm. Boston could use some of that.

The other worrying part of the rotation is whatever is happening with the bigs behind Al Horford and Rob Williams. Grant Williams is usually playing, but his minutes have been all over the place lately. (We’ll do more on him later!) But sometimes it’s Mike Muscala. Sometimes it’s Luke Kornet. Heck, even Blake Griffin has been thrown in there at times.

When it’s foul trouble, injuries or looking to change the energy, that’s all fine. But game-to-game, guys shouldn’t wonder if they’ll play or not.

One last rotation thing: There’s no reason Payton Pritchard should be a DNP-CD in a game where Malcolm Brogdon is out and other guys are pushing 50 minutes.

All that said, let’s move to topic two for Joe Mazzulla: timeouts.

We aren’t going to kill Mazzulla for the lack of timeouts…except in one case. He has to be more willing to call a timeout, and quicker, when things are messy late in the game.

Against the Knicks, Boston had a set they wanted to run, but the players weren’t on the same page. Mazzulla let at least six seconds come off the clock before calling a timeout and setting a play. And it was a good play too! (Yes, Tatum made the right play and the right read. Don’t be one of those people shouting the star should force a shot vs creating a good shot.) The problem was there wasn’t enough time to get a second shot up after the miss, had Boston rebounded the ball.

This has happened a few other times, most notably when the Celtics have gone no-timeout following a stop with the shot-clock off. That’s a fine strategy, provided things don’t bog down. If and when they do, Mazzulla has to step in, call a timeout and call a set.

6. The last few are going to be more rapid fire.

Marcus Smart isn’t the same guy defensively. Maybe it’s injuries, or age, or minutes or an accumulation of all of those things, but Smart isn’t the DPOY guy he was a year ago.

Yes, the DPOY plays are still there. But the every-play defense isn’t as good as it was a year ago. Guards are beating Smart off the dribble with stunning regularity now. He’s actually much better against big wings and true bigs now.

That’s why we’re going to suggest that Derrick White, who is having a terrific defensive season, take over as the main on-ball perimeter defender more often. And that means putting White in more lineups where he can be deployed that way. That might mean starting White more often, but it definitely means putting him in the closing group more often.

7. What happened to Grant Williams? He was pretty good on defense against the Knicks, so this is more of a general question than anything specific to Sunday night.

Williams’ confidence seems gone. There’s a good chance his elbow injury is bothering him a lot more than we’ve been told or he’s letting on. But this isn’t the guy who confidently launched three after three in a Game 7 a year ago.

Boston has to figure out how to get Williams back to letting it fly when he’s open. No more record scratches that turn into hesitant misses or turnovers. For the Celtics to get where they want to go, they need Grant Williams as the third big in what should be a very good three-big rotation in the postseason.

8. Boston doesn’t create enough easy scoring opportunities by forcing turnovers. Boston is just 25th in opponent turnover rate. Part of that is staying solid, contesting shots and rebounding vs gambling for steals. But part of it is that seeming lack of interest in locking in on defense every possession.

The Celtics can still lock up a team. They did it against the Knicks several times. But it’s an occasional visitor now vs a permanent resident.

9. Last thing we’re worried about, but it’s a big one. Boston doesn’t create enough free throws. That makes their reliance on the three-point shot more prevalent than almost any other team in the league.

Jayson Tatum gets to the line plenty. Jaylen Brown gets there a decent amount too. But everyone else seems to end up there once and a while, as opposed to forcing their way there with regularity.

Getting downhill and attacking more has to be a part of the gameplan moving forward. Beyond Tatum and Brown, the Celtics can do this with Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon too. It’s not always fun watching a free throw shooting contest, but it’s effective. Especially on those nights when the jumpers aren’t’ falling.

10. The Celtics get right back at it by traveling to play the Cleveland Cavaliers on a back-to-back. As of this writing, we have no idea who might play and not play for Boston. This could be an opportunity to semi-punt the game and rest a lot of the guys who played heavy minutes in the double overtime loss.

No matter what, the Celtics need to find their joy and find a way to have some fun again. They need to enjoy the grind of the regular season vs seeing it as a chore to get through before the playoffs.

When asked about Immanuel Quickley dancing all over the parquet on Sunday night, Tom Thibodeau wryly smiled and said, “Winning is way more fun than fun is fun.”

There’s truth in there, for sure. No one cares how much fun you are having if the losses keep stacking up. But for the Boston Celtics, if they can find their fun again, it will lead to winning again. And that’s the most fun of all.

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