Marcus Smart isn’t one to mince words.
Back in early November, the Boston Celtics lost to the Chicago Bulls on a night their offense folded down the stretch. After the game, Smart placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of his two best teammates. “Every team knows we’re going to Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown], and every team is programmed and studies to stop Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said. “I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys try and pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball and that’s something that they’re going to learn. They’re still learning and we’re proud of the progress they are making, but they are going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team.”
Scoring late in games has been Boston’s kryptonite all season long.
From opening night through Jan. 15, the Boston Celtics led the NBA in clutch minutes played. In that span, they totaled 120 minutes of game time played in the fourth quarter with the scoring margin within five points. Only one other team in the NBA had even reached 100 by then. Almost every game the Celtics played to that point in the season was relatively close. Until they weren’t.
From Jan. 15 on, the Celtics played just 49 clutch minutes, the second-fewest in the NBA. Only 11 of their final 38 games were close enough to be considered clutch. It was an unfortunate byproduct of Boston’s midseason transformation. Seemingly overnight, the Celtics became too good to win close games. They never needed to. For three months, they blew out virtually everybody they played. All of that early-season problem solving, all of those repetitions that forged their defense into the NBA’s best? Their crunch-time offense, however, got virtually none of those reps, and so it entered the playoffs untested and unprepared. The results speak for themselves.
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Boston has played 12 clutch games this postseason, more than any other team. They are scoring just 89.1 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, down from an already woeful 97.7 in the regular season. Just as distressing, an offense that assisted on over 60 percent of its regular-season field goals is now just an anemic 41.2 percent when it matters most. And eight months after that Bulls game, Smart was singing the same tune. “We have to move,” he said after Game 4. “We cannot get stagnant, stand still and let them load up on us.”
Yet that’s exactly what happened Friday night in Boston. With 5:18 remaining, Smart made a 3-pointer to put Boston up 94-90. From there, the Celtics would score just three more points. So let’s go possession by possession down the stretch of Game 4 to figure out what went wrong.
We open with Smart walking the ball up the court. By the time Boston gets into any action, the shot clock is down to 14. Smart passes to Brown, who calls for a screen to draw Jordan Poole, Golden State’s worst defender, into the play. He attacks before Golden State can switch, but settles for an ugly, runner as Klay Thompson falls.
And now, we embark upon the sequence that likely cost Boston the game. Five 3-point attempts. Five misses. On the first, Tatum tries to screen Andrew Wiggins away from Brown but is unsuccessful. Brown settles for the 3 with more than half of the clock remaining. Brick.
The play itself isn’t bad on possession No. 3. Derrick White hands it off to Tatum and tries to screen him into a bit of runway. Tatum doesn’t get any, so he passes it back out to Brown. Wiggins is still inside of the arc from Tatum’s drive, and he doesn’t jump back out to guard Tatum on the perimeter. Instead, he maintains help position to deter the Brown drive knowing that he’ll kick it back to Tatum for the jumper. Wiggins recovers just quickly enough to contest Tatum’s miss.
So far, what stands out here is the simplicity at play. There are no skip passes here, nor are there complex actions based around multiple off-ball screens or cuts. One Celtic is passing to another nearby Celtic, who may or may not try to attack one-on-one before giving up and settling for another uninspired pass or contested jumper. We get more of that when Brown switch hunts Thompson, gets stonewalled by Green and kicks it out to Smart in the corner. The pass is telegraphed enough for Green to scamper back out and contest. Boston gets the rebound. Green again contests Smart’s miss.
Once again, Brown hunts for Thompson. Once again, he gets nowhere. Al Horford misses a contested 3.
We’ve finally arrived on Boston’s lone bucket of this stretch, and it came from slightly more sophisticated action. Tatum starts in the corner before using White’s screen to flash toward the nail. He fakes the jumper once he gets it before driving into Kevon Looney. The key here is that Green isn’t at the basket. He’s out on the perimeter guarding Smart. Tatum knows this, so when he kicks it to Horford in the corner, he knows that Looney won’t be able to cover the same ground Green had earlier quite so quickly. Tatum greases the wheels with a little shove off of the pass to give Horford the time he needs to fire off a 3-pointer. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but this is thoughtful offense. Boston gets its best player the ball on the move and lets him make a decision based on what the defense is showing him.
Our last possession is probably the cleverest on Boston’s part. Rather than wasting 10 seconds developing nothing, Brown immediately tries a backdoor cut and actually gets a step on Thompson. But the help protects against a layup, and Brown’s poor ball-handling, as it has so many times this postseason, leads to a turnover.
By this point, the competitive portion of the game has ended. Boston’s lead evaporated as its offense indulged all of its worst impulses to give us five uninspired minutes of basketball. Slow-developing plays, limited passing, settling for 3s, reflexive switch-hunting, none of these taken individually are especially uncommon late in playoff games.
Such contests often come down to which team’s star is more capable of creating the right kind of shots on his own. And this season, Boston’s haven’t been able to do so. It’s as true now as it was when the season began. When the chips are down, the Celtics get stagnant, and when the Celtics get stagnant, just as they did against the Bulls in November, they lose.