Two days later, they lost to the LA Clippers by 19 points but were down by as many as 36. They shot a season-low 36.0% from the field, including 25.0% from distance (their second-worst mark of the season).
In just one game, Boston’s offense went from a well-oiled machine to a complete and utter mess. The difference? Kristaps Porzingis.
Trading for Porzingis this summer completely changed the Celtics’ offensive flow. He’s a constant release valve, as evidenced by his role in their win over the Heat. Porzingis was pick-and-popping for open threes, making plays out of the middle of the floor, and was a consistent dump-off option for when the Celtics’ offense got stale.
With Porzingis sidelined against the Clippers, the Celtics reverted to the old “you go, I go” offense that caused concerns for years. The offense bogged down, Boston played slow, and LA did a phenomenal job of cutting off their passing lanes.
“Against teams like that, you just have to continue to fight for possessions of speed, possessions of creating separation,” Joe Mazzulla said after the loss. “And at some point, you got to make shots. Whether it’s a layup, three, [or] pull-up. You just got to be more efficient on the offensive end. But I think their defense, theiractivity impacted that for sure.”
Having Al Horford as a bench player is an undeniable luxury for the Celtics, and inserting him into the starting lineup when Porzingis is out is perfect. But they simply aren’t the same player.
Running a pick-n-pop with Horford versus running the same play with Horford yields far different results, and it caused some lumps in Boston’s offensive flow on Saturday.
Credit Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, as they defended the play much better than Tyler Herro and the Heat, but regardless of the contest, Porzingis would have still gotten that shot off against LA. Instead, Horford gets chased off the line, Paul George cuts off his passing lane to the corner, and he turns the ball over in the lane.
Porzingis opens up the floor for the Celtics by simply being there. His presence as a 7-foot-3 floor spacer who can also work out of the post makes Boston a matchup nightmare, and against a well-coached defensive team like the Clippers, he was missed.
That said, Porzingis’ absence affected more than just the Celtics’ spacing. It changed their mindset. Isolation possessions replaced ball movement, and as the Clippers’ lead grew, Boston found themselves digging the hole deeper and deeper by getting away from the offensive strategies that have worked for them all season.
“Obviously, we play a little different when he’s not out there, but we still have to have answers, and we feel like we have enough to win,” Jayson Tatum said. “We still have to have a certain identity on how we want to play and how we want to attack. But tonight, we just didn’t shoot the ball nearly as well as we would like to.”
Boston’s defense was locked in at the beginning of the game. “One of the strengths of this team is, and moments of inefficient offense, we still have really good defense,” Mazzulla explained. But while they slowed down the Clippers with different zone looks and solid pressure, the shots weren’t falling on the other end.
Jaylen Brown’s usually-dependable first-quarter offense was non-existent, Jrue Holiday failed to convert on his drives, and Derrick White and Al Horford couldn’t hit their open threes. In turn, the offense turned away from their normal schemes and played with an aggression born out of frustration.
Brown and Holiday continued to struggle, the Celtics offense stagnated, and they failed to find Tatum in some key spots. Tatum, who began the game shooting 8-of-11 from the field, started getting tunnel vision and missed his final seven shots.
Porzingis’ place on the team as a release valve means more than simply having a guy to help the offense flow. He’s a calming force. An “always option.” He may struggle shooting some nights, and his post-game could be off, but simply having him on the floor relaxes the Celtics’ offense. And while they very clearly need to be better without him, they will never be quite as effective.