The Celtics just… honestly, I don’t even know what that was.
That was one of the least enjoyable basketball games I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing. I wish I could say that I “watched” it transpire, but that 48 minute disasterclass felt more like I was coming down with smallpox than watching a basketball game, slowly dying inside as the Los Angeles Clippers—a team that the Celtics clobbered by 37 on the road in December—continued their onslaught.
When our wonderful Adam Taylor had to call me off the bench for tonight’s 10 Takeaways for the second time this season, I was excited. This is a good team coming to Boston for what should be a competitive game, with lots of interesting and useful takeaways to speak of. Instead, that happened.
It was wall-to-wall failure, complete with all the trappings of a disastrous Celtics loss. Horrible three point shooting? Check. Poor decision-making and discipline? You got it. Worst percentage from the field all season? Book it.
Only once the Clippers removed their starters could the Celtics bench do their darnedest to make the final score look as respectable as possible, shaving it down to a bad-but-not-comically-bad 115-96 defeat. But this one should go in the record books as a 50 point loss, as if both teams played it through, it might have even been worse.
I sincerely hope that you—valued reader of CelticsBlog—were unable to watch last night due to a scheduling conflict, as there was approximately zero fun to be had. But if you’re like me and tuned in all the same, here are 10 painstaking takeaways.
1. The Celtics are not a Finals team without Kristaps Porzingis
Tonight exposed by far the Celtics’ biggest weakness: Kristaps Porzingis’ left ankle. Or knee. Or Lisfranc joint, whatever that even is.
Without Porzingis, the Celtics are liable to get blown off the face of the Earth by great teams, something the Clippers just announced themselves as. A bad defensive matchup suddenly has no curveball, and an unlucky shooting night can snowball into a bona fide catastrophe.
This is a terrible possession, reminiscent of the worst habits of past Celtics teams. It’s a tunnel vision drive with 21 seconds on the shot clock into the chest of a defender with better positioning, and will remind fans of some of the worst games of Jaylen Brown’s career. These are game-killers, liable to give your opponent a free stop and transition opportunity and make your teammates wonder what the heck you’re even doing.
But Brown has managed to avoid most of those bad habits all year, primarily because he has an automatic safety valve in Porzingis. Possessions like these don’t kill an entire game when the Celtics can get a free good shot out of a pick and roll. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were shutting down everything the Celtics had on the perimeter, but I don’t think Mason Plumlee and Daniel Theis would have had any chance against Porzingis’ size.
In short, Porzingis simply wouldn’t have allowed Brown and others to continue their self-destructive tendencies. He doesn’t just add a layer to the offense as he turns it from a single boring slice of unfrosted vanilla cake into a delicious, buttercream frosted multi-layer chocolate-strawberry-raspberry marble cake.
The Celtics are the best team in the league with Porzingis but not near good enough without him. How much would you bet on him getting to the finish line?
2. Deep breath
Ok, that was the main takeaway, so we’ll be using the second slot here to take a collective mental health break. Whoever you are, please stop reading and take four deep breaths, I’ll do the same.
Next, we’re going to do some affirmations:
It is going to be okay. This is not going to derail the entire season. Porzingis will be back. The Celtics were never going to go 40-1 at home. We are a strong and capable team. Luke Kornet’s haircut looked good.
Lastly, here’s a royalty-free picture of a puppy to cheer everyone up:
Games like this can lead to lots of negative emotions during and after the experience, so it’s important that we handle them like responsible adults. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
3. The snowball effect
The Celtics were pretty clearly stuck in a bad matchup from the jump without Porzingis, as while noble backups Al Horford and Luke Kornet can provide on-paper size, they don’t complement it with any imposing force down low. But let’s get one thing straight: it did not have to be that bad.
There’s a Buddhist saying that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Some days, it’s going to feel like there’s a lid on the basket. That’s life, but you don’t have to respond by doing this:
This play drives me insane. It’s the moment the Celtics lost the game for good, as their lone overture into the Clippers’ lead evaporated as Brown casually pushed his foot beneath James Harden after 22 seconds of perfect defense. It was a huge swing, giving the Clippers three free throws and the ball, but even more importantly canned the Celtics’ momentum for good.
In the NBA, you can control everything you do except once the ball leaves your hands. The Celtics were colder than absolute zero on Saturday night, but that’s no excuse for nonchalant fouls, lazy rebounding and apathetic execution. Sure, it was a bad matchup with the Celtics’ missing their unicorn, but games last four quarters. Don’t let it snowball from the very beginning.
4. Schedule losses don’t exist, they can’t hurt you
Let’s paint a picture. Team A is captained by three 30+ year-old stars, all with a history of missing tons of games and resting constantly, often to the detriment of the team. It is the second night of a back to back, with Team A traveling all the way from Canada overnight.
Team B had a standard rest day, and just produced one of the greatest offensive performances in NBA history. They are 20-1 at home, and while they are missing a key player, Team B obliterated Team A in their prior meeting a month earlier.
Everything on paper said the Celtics should be in a good spot even without Porzingis, but last night was another reminder that there are no excuses in the NBA. The Clippers came in ready to ball and the Celtics came in and underestimated them. It wasn’t pretty, but it is pretty simple.
5. Please for the love of all that is holy pass Jayson Tatum the ball
This play isn’t going to look that bad in real time, but give it a few watches and see if you can find what’s wrong with this picture.
If you answered, “Oh, Jayson Tatum is being guarded by Daniel Theis,” you nailed it. The Celtics completely overreacted to a double team and launched another early three while the Clippers closed out like their lives depended on it.
I don’t blame Brown for taking this shot in the abstract, but that’s if we ignore that threes had been clanking off the rim like golf-ball sized hail on a tin roof all night. The Celtics needed to get back into their offense and stabilize a chaotic game. Even if it went in, a three ball isn’t the way to do that.
Instead, Tatum could have exploited an advantageous matchup, something he did a few times with major success. But he only took 14 two pointers the whole night, many of which came after the game was all but over. With how the Celtics offense was running, Tatum should have taken 25 shots in the first half. Instead, the Celtics didn’t exploit their one advantage.
6. Stuck at 46 points
There isn’t much to take away from this takeaway, but I just wanted to memorialize a pretty hilarious stretch in the 3rd Quarter in which it felt like the Celtics would be stuck at 46 points forever.
From the 9:52 to 3:18 marks in the period, the Celtics remained at 46 points. That is 6 minutes and 34 seconds. For reference, the Clippers scored 21 points in that stretch, nearly half of the Celtics’ total score to that point.
If you scroll through the NBA’s official play-by-play of the game, there were 66 individual plays between the Celtics recording points. Around the 5-minute mark, I started to wonder if the Celtics would ever score again, or just forfeit the game, claiming that divine intervention made it impossible to pass 46 points.
Thankfully, Luke Kornet converted a layup to break the seal. But man, that was something. Since the game itself was like having smallpox, I’d imagine that run was what it felt like for smallpox patients to get buried alive.
7. The Clippers are playing to their potential, will it hold?
Last night forcibly wrested my lingering Clippers doubt and threw it directly in the incinerator. These guys are nuts.
This defense is outrageous. Horford has zero options whatsoever, as the Clippers fly around like glorious golden eagles, covering every option and quite literally forcing a turnover. What’s funny is that the Clippers didn’t have a particularly efficient offensive game, but they shut the Celtics down so thoroughly they could be anywhere from amazing to whatever and still win.
I only have one question: will this hold?
The Clippers have been a quote-unquote contender since I was 16, ever since Leonard and George teamed up to create one of the great super teams of the modern NBA era. Surely they’ve had major playoff success, and maybe a title by my 21st birthday, right?
Wrong, because this “contender” has been repeatedly torpedoed by its own stars getting injured, not caring, or somewhere in the murky middle. I didn’t care how good they were on paper, because if they didn’t care, why should I take them seriously?
Then came the trade for Messiah of not-caring: James Harden, and myself and many reasonable NBA people decried the deal as a catastrophic panic, destined to doom the Clippers forevermore.
Except that hasn’t happened at all, and the Clippers have been awesome, led by their brigade of aging stars who are just getting it done. But under no circumstances am I letting my guard down, as there are too many proven injury prone season-killers on this squad to ensure anything at all.
But man, when they are all locked in, they might be the (whispers) best team in the West.
8. Kawhi Leonard is insane at basketball
Does anyone combine two-way skill and physicality like Kawhi? His shot making ability is top-flite, but then he’ll come down the floor and lock up your best player, all the while utilizing an impossibly strong frame and physical tools to make literally anything happen.
But it’s not just how much he produces. It’s how easy he makes it look.
There were a bunch of possessions where Leonard found himself guarding Tatum or Brown and shut them down with what looked like very minimal effort. He has such an airtight defensive stance and super-computer reactions that he can destroy every micromovement by even the most talented wing scorers. It was sneakily the best individual defense I’ve seen played on those two all season, and—if I’m being honest—was kind of cool to watch.
9. A tale of two Lukes
I have a complicated relationship with Luke Kornet. I’m going to explain it in two videos.
In the first video, Luke goes coast-to-coast like the heroes of old, blocking a shot on one end and catching a lob on the other end by running the whole floor. He had me amped up for the first time all night, and I saw in that play all the upside that Kornet can have at his best: a shot blocker with solid finishing ability.
And then there’s the second example, where Luke is unable to even get a clean shot up despite a massive height advantage. The clip cuts out too early, because he also picks up a foul immediately after getting back on defense.
I joked to some friends that Kornet should just get a haircut and put on Porzingis’ jersey when he misses time, perhaps channeling his energy into elite level play. I was kidding, but then Kornet actually got a haircut, and I was forced to take a hard look at his play.
I desperately want him to be the backup big the Celtics need, but there’s simply too much variance in his play to rely on him. That second clip has to be a bucket, no matter how good Kawhi Leonard is.
10. Playing for self-respect with Payton Pritchard
By the end of the third quarter, the game was over and then some. The Clippers had put the Celtics to bed, and both teams started to take their foot off the gas. There wasn’t the faintest glimmer of hope of actually winning the game, so all that was left was to play for self-respect.
And to close things out on this marathon of painful takeaways, I want to thank Payton Pritchard for caring for 47 glorious seconds at the end of the third. He created a bucket, kept hustling and forced Harden into a turnover, and then hit a three as time expired. Pritchard realized the game was over, but also realized there’s more to life than winning.
He had to play for himself and for his guys, and because he lives for the game of basketball. Even in a horrible loss, you like to see that.