(Note: Unfortunately, clips are unavailable from the NBA.com box scores. Just words today.)
1. It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different result. If that’s true, then the Boston Celtics are insane.
Throughout multiple playoff runs, the Celtics have struggled to closeout games. Every once and a while, they do it (Like in Game 4 of this series) and you think they’ve figured out. Then they have a game like Game 5 and they look like the same old Celtics who have no idea how to finish off an opponent.
There’s a belief in horse racing that some horses are better coming from behind, because they have something to chase. When they are in front, that motivation just isn’t there.
Maybe it’s the same for Boston. They look amazing when way ahead. They are pretty good at coming from behind. But when they are just ahead, it’s often a mess and ends in disappointment.
This was as frustrating of a collapse as the Celtics have had in years. Others have had bigger stakes, but this team is supposed to be past this now. The path to the NBA Finals is as open for them as it has ever been. Yet, instead of gearing up for a second-round matchup with a banged-up likely MVP, Boston is headed back to Atlanta.
2. This is a pretty big blame pie to cut and serve, but we aren’t giving any of those slices to Derrick White, Al Horford or any of the bench guys who saw action. Instead, we’re going to serve heaping helpings to the Celtics core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, with an equal share going to Joe Mazzulla.
Those are the Celtics main guys. That’s true even if White has been Boston’s third-best player this season. Tatum, Brown and Smart are the ones who are supposed to come through when the Celtics need it most. And Mazzulla is supposed to shepherd them along the way.
3. Jayson Tatum did a lot of good stuff throughout this game. He was 7-of-11 on two-point shots. He had eight assists against only two turnovers. His defense was good, as always.
Tatum was also 1-for-11 on three-pointers. One of his turnovers came off a baffling casual play, which he compounded with a foul. He also picked up a technical foul, which was dubious, but one that is regularly called. (And, no, Onyeka Okongwu didn’t do “the exact same thing” a little bit later.)
Tatum was a massive part of Boston going back into the same old walk-it-up, kill-the-clock offense as has killed the Celtics for years now. After Jaylen Brown made three-pointer to put Boston up by 13 points with 6:10 to play, the Celtics played at a snail’s pace, led by their offensive leader.
Tatum was bringing the ball up, dribbling to about 35-to-40 feet from the basket and just staying there. A couple of times, he picked out teammates, but for the most part, everything just ground to a halt for Boston. By the time they were even getting into anything, the clock was so low that the attempts were rushed and forced.
This isn’t all on Tatum, as Joe Mazzulla said he should have taken action earlier to make sure the Celtics continued to play with pace. But it is a lot on Tatum. He’s the one with the ball. He’s the guy the Celtics count on to take him home.
Last part of Tatum’s share of the blame pie: He took one shoot in the final five minutes of the game. It was a pullup three-pointer with 4:47 to go. (The last shot wasn’t taken in time, so it didn’t count.)
One shot in nearly five minutes. For the Celtics franchise player.
4. Jaylen Brown was wonderful throughout the first three quarters of this game. He even scored eight points in the fourth quarter.
Well, in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, at least. Brown, just like Jayson Tatum, fell apart late in the game.
Over the final six minutes, Brown missed both of his shots, committed a bad turnover and nearly had two others. And his defense wasn’t good late either.
Much like Tatum, Brown was a damaging player when Boston needed him to be a closer. To be fair, Brown was thrown a couple of grenades late in the clock and was forced to try to create something out of nothing. But he should be able to handle some of that at this point of his career arc.
5. Marcus Smart was on the bench when the Hawks scored the first six points of their 12-0 game-tying run between the 5:24 mark and 2:42 mark of the fourth quarter. So, we can’t put any of that on him.
The next six points featured a heavy dose of Smart. Trae Young hit a three when Smart appeared to be on a different page than his teammates as to the defensive coverage. Then Smart had a terrible turnover, and Young immediately came back to hit another three to tie the game.
Somehow, it got worse from there.
With Boston nursing a two-point lead, Smart committed an egregious moving screen. On the following Hawks possession, he again soft-switched and it put Al Horford in a tough spot against Young.
Then, after the Celtics took the lead off a weird play where Rob Williams won a jump ball and somehow got an alley-oop finish, Boston was in “one stop and it’s over” territory. Smart tried to be the hero and went for a steal about 45 feet from the basket. He deflected the ball cleanly at first, but then pushed and dove through Young. It was a blatant foul, and it came at the worst time possible.
Look, we love and trust Marcus Smart. We really do. But this was as bad as he’s been down the stretch in a game, maybe ever. Part of loving and trusting someone is being honest about when they mess up, and Smart messed up in a major way.
6. It’s time for Joe Mazzulla’s serving of the blame pie. His is going to get broken up into chunks, because there’s a lot of things we don’t understand.
But before we get there, treat this as a desperate plea: Stop asking for Ime Udoka to come back. Stop crying about Ime Udoka being gone. He was fired for cause and for good reason. He’s also got another job now. He’s never going to coach the Celtics again. Get over it. It’s worse than crying over spilled milk, because it completely overlooks his very serious transgressions as a person of power in the Boston organization. Just move on already.
7. Back to basketball…Where the heck is Grant Williams? This whole deal of not playing Williams is ridiculous. You have to wonder if it’s personal at this point, because there is no basketball strategy that makes sense. Williams has seen meaningful action once in this series, played really well, and went right back to being glued to the bench.
Blake Griffin has been a terrific story this season, and we all love his “leave it all on the court” style, but playing him over Williams in the fourth quarter of a close closeout game makes no sense. Nor did inserting Mike Muscala over Williams in Game 4, no matter how brief that was.
It can’t be a matchup thing either, as Boston is playing plenty of double-big lineups (more on that later). Williams can defend anyone the Hawks are rolling out at the 3-5 positions. He can make shots, screen and keep the ball moving.
So, why has Mazzulla gone away from a guy who was one of the Celtics top-eight rotation guys almost all season? At first, it seemed to be deal where Mazzulla was saving Williams for what looked like take-a-toll matchups against Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But there has to be more to it than that.
Mazzulla hasn’t said anything more than “matchups” when queried about the lack of Williams in this series. But that’s not good enough. It’s either not true, or Mazzulla is wrong. And not changing it up reeks of stubbornness, and this isn’t the time for that.
8. Continuing…Why is Derrick White ever out of the game late? White has been Boston’s third-best player this season. He’s been their best defensive player all year long, and he’s been a consistent positive on offense. It makes no sense when he’s not playing down the stretch.
If the goal is to win the title, Joe Mazzulla needs to have the courage to put Marcus Smart on the bench. If Smart can’t accept that, then he’s not the Celtic we thought he was. The bet is that Smart won’t be happy about it (and he shouldn’t be as a competitor), but that he’ll get it.
This isn’t to suggest that White should go wire-to-wire in the fourth quarter. But if it’s close with under six minutes to play, White needs to be on the floor. Everyone can see that except for the guy who makes the actual lineup calls.
9. Out of necessity, Boston largely moved away from double-big lineups this season. And they were pretty successful going with one big on the floor at a time. In this series, that has reversed in a major way.
Now, we aren’t going to say it’s always the wrong call. Atlanta has had enough success on the boards, that having Rob Williams and Al Horford out there together makes sense. Williams was one of the only Celtics doing positive things in the final few minutes of this game.
That said, Boston needed to keep scoring. That isn’t happening at the rate it needs to with both bigs in the game late. From the day they introduced him, everyone from Celtics personnel to Celtics fans said Malcolm Brogdon was the missing piece from last year’s Finals team. One more guy who could make plays late and keep the scoring flowing when stuff bogged down.
Now, when things have bogged down, Brogdon is watching from the bench. That’s not what the team set for expectations from that trade, nor is what everyone else bought as those expectations.
Joe Mazzulla has to be willing to take all of the above and combine it into better lineups. It feels like Boston’s best closing lineup could be one big (probably Al Horford), Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon. If you really, really need a stop or rebound, then put Smart and Rob Williams in. But otherwise, close the games out with guys on the floor who will play the right way on offense. If nothing else, it’s worth trying something different to see if it works.
Big, long, heavy, exasperated sigh.
That was a lot. The frustration is palpable around the Celtics right now. No one wants to hear them continue to say all the right things after games, while continuing to do all the wrong things. That record has been played so many times that it’s warped and the needle is poking all the way through.
Just be better. Don’t tell everyone you will be better. Actually be better.
Everything is right there for the Celtics. Sure, they gave Philadelphia a couple of extra days of rest, but Joel Embiid is still banged up. Who knows if Milwaukee will even get through to the second round?
Boston should make the NBA Finals. Nothing has changed with that expectation. They just insist on never learning their own lesson, which makes everything a lot harder than it needs to be.
Thursday night is a chance to get this one wrapped up. And it would suit the Celtics to do so, as anything can happen in a Game 7. The best way to keep that from being a worry would have been to close it out in Game 5. Now, the best way to keep that from happening is to close it out in Game 6. There are no excuses left. Just be better.