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Defense didn’t travel: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Hawks Game 3

Boston’s defense was missing in action as the Hawks got back into the series with a home victory

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

(Note: We apologize for the lack of clips. The system hadn’t loaded them, and your intrepid author had a 4:30 AM wakeup call on Saturday morning and couldn’t wait for them to load on Friday night.)

1. The Boston Celtics shot a perfectly respectable 48.9% from the field in their Game 3 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics made a very good 21-of-48 three-pointers. Boston only turned it over 12 times and had 31 assists for the game.

The Celtics lost by eight.

The reason Boston lost was Atlanta got into a rhythm on offense early. As the game went along the Celtics did precious little to knock the Hawks out of that rhythm. Outside of about a four-minute long stretch to open the fourth quarter, Boston’s defense did very little to disrupt Atlanta’s flow. And that gave the Hawks some life in the series.

2. The Celtics defensive problems were two-fold. The first was they stuck with the scheme that had worked great in Games 1 and 2. No complaints there. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Until it becomes broke. Then you need to fix it.

The Hawks brought their bigs up higher and set their screens about two or three feet above the three-point arc, instead of right at the arc. That gave the Hawks guards a long runway to get downhill and into the paint, or to their pullup jumpers. Atlanta’s bigs were also rolling hard off those screens. That was occupying the screened player, while giving Boston’s bigs the dual responsibility of playing drop coverage against the ballhandler and being in help position on the roller.

It wasn’t until the fourth quarter, after Atlanta was in a great rhythm, that the Celtics changed their pick-up points and started straight switching at the level of the ball. But by then, it was too late.

NBA players are largely rhythm players. If they see some easy shots go down, they start making the tougher, well-contested shots. This played out repeatedly in the fourth quarter, as both Trae Young and Dejounte Murray made tough shots over some great defense. It’s likely directly related to both of the Hawks guards feeling good throughout the game.

3. Related to the above…not only was Boston’s scheme faulty, but the execution was largely poor.

The Celtics are not a steal-heavy team. For years now, from Doc Rivers to Brad Stevens to Ime Udoka to Joe Mazzulla, Boston has preferred to play solid defense and to keep the gambling to a minimum. And when they do gamble, it’s usually guys who have a high-success rate like Rajon Rondo or Marcus Smart.

In this game, the Celtics were gambling a lot. They were jumping passing lanes, missing the steal and putting the rest of the defense in a bad spot. They were also biting on shot fakes more than usual too. That led to some fouls or the Atlanta driving those fakes for baskets.

Lastly, Boston was late to get out to shooters. The Hawks got a lot of open looks throughout the night. Again, this is somewhat scheme, but it’s also execution.

4. The Celtics rebounding in Games 1 and 2 wasn’t as bad as the box score made it look. The Hawks missed 60 shots in Game 1 and 58 shots in Game 2. There were a lot of offensive rebounds to be had.

In Game 3, Atlanta missed 40 shots and they grabbed 11 offensive boards. In addition, the Celtics had only 23 defensive rebounds. That’s an atrocious 57.5% defensive rebound rate. For reference, the worst rebounding team in the NBA this regular season was the Indiana Pacers at 72.2%.

So, if you were worried after Game 1, it was really just a volume thing. If you were worried about the rebounding after Game 2, it wasn’t as good, but still mostly a volume thing.

Feel free to be worried after Game 3, because this was just bad. Allowing a team to shoot 56% and rebound 11 of their own misses is really, really bad basketball. That’s pretty high on the list of things to clean up before Game 4.

5. Yet, despite all of that, the Celtics were right there. Jayson Tatum missed an open three-pointer with 58.5 second left that would have tied the game.

After a Trae Young floater, Jaylen Brown missed an open three on a ATO set. And that was basically that.

But, after one of their worst defensive showings of the year (fourth-worst points per possession allowed regular season and playoffs), the Celtics still had a chance to win the game in the final minute. Sure, it’s a silver lining of sorts, but it’s also completely true. The sky is not falling.

6. The reason Boston still had a chance is the offense is clicking at a high level right now. They rained down threes at a high rate. When the Hawks pressed up on the Celtics in the second half, Boston started getting to the rim. Atlanta still has no answers for how to stop the Celtics offense.

Quin Snyder’s big adjustment was to put Clint Capela on Marcus Smart and to let Capela roam. Smart wasn’t perfect, but he did knock down 5-of-12 threes. That was enough to get the Hawks out of that alignment pretty quickly.

After that happened, everything went back to being pretty messy for Atlanta. Boston is still getting whatever shots they want, provided they are even a little patient. The offense was never the problem in Game 3.

7. Grant Williams re-emerged for rotation minutes. It was probably because Derrick White got in early foul trouble, and then Jaylen Brown spent the bulk of the game in foul trouble. But Williams delivered when given his chance.

Williams shot 4-for-4 from behind the arc, and he did a better defensive job than some of his teammates did. We said Williams was still going to be a big part of things throughout the playoff run, and that remains true.

8. There are two things that are a little worrisome. First, this was Game 85 of the season, and Joe Mazzulla still doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on who he wants to close games for him.

In the regular season, that was a good problem to have, because of all the great options. In the playoffs, that’s an uncomfortable uncertainty.

We can safely put Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford’s names in pen as part of the closing five. Unless they really need to go big, which will likely be a rare occurrence, that would mean Rob Williams. Most nights, it’ll be two out of Marcus Smart (he’s written in that closing lineup in that old-school erasable ink), Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon.

In Game 3, it looked like it was going to be White and Brogdon, but after Brogon missed a shot and then gave up a bucket, Mazzulla went with Smart alongside White.

It’s not a huge issue…yet. But it is something to keep an eye on, as there are going to be many, many more close games to come during this playoff run. Figuring out who will be the guys on the floor at the end of a tight contest is all part of the process. And the Celtics are still sorting through some different options.

9. It’s time to be at least a little worried about Jaylen Brown’s right-hand laceration. It doesn’t seem to bother Brown when he shoots, but that’s likely because shots are coming off his fingers more than his hand.

However, it’s clearly bothering Brown to some level when he’s dribbling, and he doesn’t have the tightest handle to start with. And it’s very clearly bothering him when passing and rebounding. On rebounds, you grab the ball with your whole hand, and Brown is trying to guide rebounds with his right hand into his left hand. On his passes, he doesn’t seem to have full control or the proper oomph behind them.

It’s not bad enough that we need to talk about Brown sitting or anything. He’s still playing well enough to play through it. But it is worrisome enough that closing out this series early, and sitting for an extra day or two, would be huge for Brown’s recovery.

10. Game 4 is Sunday night. The Celtics are still in full control of this series. Yes, they played a poor defensive game, but that’s probably not going to repeat again in this series. And the Hawks probably won’t shoot this well again in the series.

It’s on the Celtics to get a win in Game 4 and then to get things closed out in Game 5 on Tuesday in Boston.

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