Earlier this season, following their embarrassing fourth-quarter collapse against the Chicago Bulls, Marcus Smart made headlines by criticizing the Boston Celtics’ approach on offense at the end of games. Since then the team has gone 4-1 to get back to .500 on the season, a turnaround Smart attributed to the fact that the team “got tired of getting our ass kicked.”
But while the wins have started to come, most of them have been comfortable, double-digit affairs. That’s obviously not a bad thing, but it means they haven’t faced many crucial late-game situations in this recent stretch. They did against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, however, and it was clear that there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
Up by seven with four minutes to play against a shorthanded Bucks team missing Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, the Celtics were in great shape. All they needed was some crisp execution and a few buckets and they could have effectively sealed the game. Instead, they collapsed and were forced to go to overtime for the fourth time this season to finally come away with the win.
We’ll pick things up here, with just over four minutes left. Jayson Tatum gets the ball on the wing and waits for the pick from Robert Williams III. The Bucks switch, which gets Tatum the matchup he wants with Bobby Portis. Tatum shakes him and creates some space for a step-back 3-pointer, but comes up short. Not the worst look of all time, but certainly not a great one either.
Next time down, Tatum isolates on the wing against Semi Ojeleye. Again, he goes into a dribbling combination to try and free himself for a step-back 3. This one he makes, but it’s not a great shot. (There wasn’t a ton of time left on the shot clock when Tatum got the ball here, but it wasn’t a heave situation either.)
A few possessions later and the Celtics again run a high screen for Tatum so that he can get Portis on the switch. You can probably predict what happens here. Tatum dribbles for a few seconds then launches up a bad 3 that falls short.
Let’s pause here to revisit Smart’s comments from the other day:
“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.”
OK, moving along.
With a minute left the Celtics were clinging to a three-point lead. This time, Tatum pops up to the top of the key off the down screen from Williams and puts the ball on the deck. He dribbles straight into traffic, however, and was lucky not to get called for an offensive foul before turning it over.
Last possession of regulation now, with the game tied at 108-108. The Celtics go right back to the well with a high screen to get Tatum going at Portis on the switch. After nearly losing control of the ball, Tatum is forced to put up an awkward leaning floater that comes up short, sending things to overtime.
For good measure, here’s one more play from the extra frame. The Celtics have Schroder set the screen this time so that Tatum can go at George Hill on the switch. Even that yields nothing, though, as Tatum settles for a tough fadeaway that never had a chance.
“To open up the court for them later in the game where they don’t always have to take those tough shots or take tough matchups…” Smart said. “When we’re running plays for your best players, every team knows that and they do a good job of shutting that down. We can’t allow that, when they shut that down we can’t keep trying to go to those guys.”
While Smart may not have been the best messenger given his shaky decision making at times, and should not have made the comments to the media — “something that we probably didn’t need,” Jaylen Brown said — there was some truth in what he said. That was evident against the Bucks.
Everything about those late Tatum possessions was flawed, from his decision making to the Celtics’ lack of movement. He has historically been a great 3-point shooter, but at a certain point you have to try something besides a step-back or a fadeaway, even if it’s a simple drive and kick to get the ball flowing. (For the season, Tatum is now shooting 31 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-point land in clutch situations.)
At the same time, it doesn’t help him that the rest of his teammates just stood and watched once he got the ball. Go look at those clips again. The other four Celtics are essentially statues after he takes control. It’s just one pick-and-roll and done. That’s not a formula for winning basketball.
Now, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Celtics. They still ended up winning this game and even after their slow start, they are just 2.5 games out of first place in the crowded Eastern Conference. But this was another reminder that they still have some real issues to sort out on the offensive end before they can feel comfortable as a certain playoff team.