For the third game in a row, the Boston Celtics were up by double digits in the first half. And for the third game in a row, they failed to capitalize, falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime, 118-114.
Grant Williams’ missed free throws will capture the attention of fans and the media, but his failure to capitalize at the end of regulation was the culmination of a myriad of mistakes on Boston’s end. It’s a pattern that has made itself evidently clear since the All-Star break.
“Just some empty possessions on offense,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “I thought we were executing pretty well. We just missed some layups, missed some jump shots, [and] they were able to get out in transition and tie the game. And then their offensive rebounding at the end of the game made a difference.”
If that comment sounds familiar, it’s because those are the same problems the Celtics ran into last game against the New York Knicks and the one before against the Brooklyn Nets.
After Sunday’s loss against New York, Mazzulla voiced his concern level: “zero.” And while he maintained positive in lieu of another defeat, he was aggravated with the Celtics’ inability to learn from their mistakes.
“Well, I mean, if it gets worse, it needs to get worse, for whatever reason,” said Mazzulla. “I don’t look to anything except what we need to do every day, get to where we want to get to. Everything that we’re experiencing from a basketball standpoint is for a reason as long as we learn from it and grow. We haven’t learned about late-game offensive rebounding yet. And this might be the fifth or sixth loss. And so that part pisses me off. Other than that, it’s just part of it.”
The Cavaliers dominated the offensive glass in the latter stages of the game. Through the first three periods, they grabbed six offensive rebounds, but in the fourth quarter and overtime combined, they pulled down 10. Those 10 offensive boards led to 16 second-chance points for Cleveland.
A similar story can be told from the Knicks loss, as Mitchell Robinson grabbed some crucial offensive boards in the second overtime that prevented Boston from getting a stop and ended up halting any momentum the Celtics could have gained.
Red-hot starts have allowed the Celtics to jump out to impressive leads, but as quickly as they grow an advantage, they let it slip through their fingers.
“I think it’s about letting our foot off the gas,” said Malcolm Brogdon after Boston’s loss to Cleveland. “I think it’s about having slippage. Whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s turnovers, or just getting quality shots, quality possessions down the floor. I thought we didn’t do that in the overtime. Whether it was rebounding, whether it was quality possessions, we weren’t able to close out the game.”
Turnovers have also plagued the Celtics as of late. They only committed 12 against the Cavaliers, but they gave the ball away 16 times against New York and 19 times against Brooklyn. And similar to the issue of rebounding, it’s less about the number of turnovers as it is about the timing.
Whether it be letting their foot off the gas on defense or rushing into early-in-the-shot-clock threes, the Celtics have consistently opened the door for their opponents to make a comeback. And with the postseason just a month away, that type of basketball won’t fly.
“We should be fighting to win. And that’s what it should be,” said Jaylen Brown. “Whether you’re in a rhythm or not in a rhythm, what matters is winning games. And at this point in the season, I think that we are fighting to get in our own rhythms a little bit too much. And that’s from the top to the bottom. We should be fighting to win. We’ve had possessions that have been pivotal, and we haven’t executed. Rebounds, loose balls, turnovers, free throws, all of that stuff — me included. And as we move forward, if we’re going to do what we want to do, this is the time where you improve. This is the time when you respond. So, I look at it as a glass half full, rather than half empty. As a part of the journey. You just got to respond.”
After an extremely efficient start to the game, Boston abandoned their offensive principles in the fourth quarter and overtime. Through the first three quarters against the Cavaliers, they shot 50.7% from the field and 41.2% from deep. The ball was popping, they were taking smart shots, and they were hustling on the offensive glass.
In the fourth quarter, they shot 25.0% from the floor and 20.0% from deep, and in overtime, they made one field goal (1-of-9 overall). A complete meltdown.
And while nothing the Celtics will say can fix the past, they understand the issues at hand. All that’s left to do is correct them.
“I think winning cures all, as we know. And losing games that we’ve been losing lately, it’s tough,” Brogdon said. “I mean, we’re gonna get everybody’s best shot. And I think we know that, I thought we came out and played the right way today, played a good game, despite being down numbers and, you know, back-to-back and all that, but we weren’t able to finish the game. And we just got to pick up on some patterns that are, I think, holding us back a little bit. And you correct it, be better, be sharper, finish games better, keep leads better. I think that’s really going to be the big thing for us - keeping leads.”
There are only 16 games left in the Celtics’ season. Their once-firm grasp atop the Eastern Conference is gone, as the Milwaukee Bucks have taken a two-game lead over them for first place. On top of that, the Philadelphia 76ers are just two games behind them in third.
With the standings staring down at them, the playoffs inching closer, and a world of problems unfolding in their face, all that’s left to do is win. That is the only answer.
“There’s no moral victories in this s***. We got to win games. Period,” said Brown. “And I gotta be better. There were spots in overtime and through the game. I feel like I rushed some shots that I wish I could have back. But overall, we just have to have a fighter’s mentality. And we got to play to win.”