Jayson Tatum swished his second pull-up three by setting himself from long distance behind the line against Usman Garuba — who had just switched onto him — converting the look before the third quarter ended.
It capped a 2-for-10 night for Tatum, who followed Joe Mazzulla’s desire to see him pull up and challenge defenses from three early in the game. Urgency didn’t arrive until the final seconds though, Boston nearly erasing a late nine-point deficit and falling one Tatum layup short from forcing overtime.
“I take the blame for that. I didn’t necessarily start the best and I feel like that kind of spread throughout the team. And so I have to be better starting the game, just from an energy level,” Tatum told reporters in Houston.
Tatum didn’t close strong either through a scoreless fourth quarter where Jabari Smith Jr. stopped him driving twice on a night where Smith and the Rockets consistently found answers until a near collapse. The crowds he faced showed why the Celtics sometimes prefer threes. Al Horford saved the game with a pair of blocks after bad possessions went in the other direction, maintaining a 4-0 Boston swing on free throws in the closing minutes. Malcolm Brogdon scored an and-one driving baseline before Jalen Green gave Houston breathing room with an elbow jumper before Smith Jr. missed a free throw and opened a door Tatum failed to enter.
The Rockets, the No. 28 offense and No. 29 defense in the league, stunned the Celtics after he missed an open layup, 111-109, by holding Boston to 12-for-42 (28.6%) three-point shooting a 17th loss over the past 26 games where they shot below 36% from deep. That won’t concern Mazzulla. He left the game worried about the other three factors — free throw disparity (27-21 FTA), a 10-13 loss in the turnover margin and arguably the team’s worst night on the defensive glass all season.
“Those are concerning,” he admitted. “The margins … regardless of who you play, that’s playoff basketball at its finest, is the ability to win those situations. So it’s concerning that we’re inconsistent in that. We have to be committed to those.”
Shooting, which improved in a positive direction in wins over Portland and Atlanta before Monday’s letdown, turned against the Celtics too. Whereas Boston hit that league average three-point percentage or greater in 19-of-26 (73.1%) games to start the season, they’ve only done so in 18-of-44 (40.9%) since, winning 17-of-18 when they do and falling to 9-17 when they don’t. The Celtics don’t intend to live-and-die by the three. It’s happening.
Mazzulla stressed volume after the Celtics blew a 28-point lead to the Nets earlier this month, which he blamed on Brooklyn building a 44-29 attempt three-point attempt advantage. He called the three-point attempt rate the most important stat in basketball that night, and the Celtics fired up 59, 48, 49 and 42 threes since, with 42 again on Monday. He doesn’t seek a shortcut to victory with the three. It opens the lane, Boston scored 50 points in the paint in the loss, changes how and where defenses guard from, and gives the Celtics a mathematical cushion.
Jaylen Brown described the settling effect it had watching from afar though, as Boston posted its worst shooting night all season by hitting 21.4% of their threes against New York in February. He thought the Celtics shot too many threes early on, later more closely matching Mazzulla’s message while adding his input on the strategy.
“It’s a balance,” Brown told CLNS Media. “I think that any time a team gets more shots than you, with more turnovers and all the above, it’s a recipe for disaster. No matter what the shot is, as long as we shoot more shots, we’ll be in good shape to win. (That night’s win over Cleveland) wasn’t that case. I think they got a lot more shots than us and outplayed us and out-toughed us a little bit, but it is a balance trying to find a rhythm between taking threes and getting to the basket. A couple of plays in the second half, I felt like I could’ve gotten to the basket and I shot a three when I probably could’ve gotten to the basket, so I’m just trying to find that rhythm and make the best decisions.”
Brown scored 43 points on 16-for-25 shooting by mostly attacking the rim and hitting 8-for-11 around the restricted zone. He caught pocket passes, finished in transition and added a pull-up jumper from the elbow to pull the Celtics within three points at the start of the fourth quarter after trailing by 13 points in the third. The Celtics transitioned to the two, attacking the rim 10 times while taking nine threes to start the second half. Tatum hit all four layup attempts. Then, Boston finished the fourth quarter 1-of-8 on the three-point shot.
Those short misses, despite that urgency to reach the rim growing apparent, became something Mazzulla emphasized after the win over Portland. He recently grew less worried with threes falling and more with Boston’s willingness to do the little things that tortured them in Houston. Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon all faced foul trouble with Payton Pritchard (heel) out again. They allowed 15 offensive rebounds, including one to Kenyon Martin Jr. with under one minute left that let the Rockets go ahead by three.
Assistant Damon Stoudamire started the difficult day by announcing he would coach his last game before taking over Georgia Tech basketball. Stoudamire assisted Mazzulla’s ascent to head coach, bridged the Ime Udoka hires with the new head coach and provided key mentoring Smart that’ll no longer be close by.
It’s worth wondering what impact loads of missed shots creates on the players, including Smart, pounding the rim more often. Tatum’s shooting 29.4% on pull-up threes this year, despite the team’s insistence he take them aggressively. Brown (31.9%) isn’t performing much better there, and a normally reliable Celtics assist rate regressed to 48.7% in a new worst loss of the season.
Boston’s offense now ranks 15th since the threes stopped falling at a 40% rate in December. Smart’s second half struggles continued on Monday. The defense faltered against heavy isolation and Robert Williams III (hamstring) reportedly will begin focusing on improving his movement. Only 13 games remain.
“We need to continue to build the camaraderie and the trust as a team,” Brown said in Houston. “The little stuff goes a long way. Picking each other up when they fall. When you come out of the game, dapping everybody up. Making sure you get everybody’s hand. Cheering for your teammates. Bringing energy. Having fun with the game. That, I think, is one thing I want to continue to build … but two, just taking care of the little things … we lost tonight, not really on execution, but on lack of effort. Not doing our job.”