The Celtics stopped doing the little things on Monday night.
Jaylen Brown failed to box out Brandon Miller, who tipped-out a Hornets overtime miss to Gordon Hayward in a one-possession game. Hayward back cut Jayson Tatum to tie the score two possessions later. It’s difficult to fault the Celtics for Miles Bridges’ game-winner, a three-point bomb over Jrue Holiday after a 1-for-6 start, but Boston had already blown a nine-point a lead in the final two minutes of regulation. They already squandered opportunities to win overtime over a 3-9 Charlotte team that entered the game losing 7-of-9.
“Tonight, our first shot defense was good,” Joe Mazzulla said. “When we didn’t (hold them to one shot), they got offensive rebounds, kick-out threes and layups … taking plays off and not finishing possessions. Credit to Charlotte for continuing to play hard the whole time … we gave up transition threes to LaMelo Ball, we gave up transition threes to Bridges. Those guys can score in bunches. The second you relax, they take advantage of it.”
Those miscues coming in crunch time, days after one of Boston’s most prolific crunch time execution finishes of the Mazzulla era, brought back fears of the slippage and inconsistency that marked year one. Derrick White and Al Horford missed the game. Depth didn’t prove an issue — Boston’s bench finished squarely as a positive and a five-man second unit extended the Celtics’ lead between the third and fourth quarters. Luke Kornet led all Celtics finishing +25. Boston’s starters, particularly the two stars, wasted that effort from the bench and raised questions from training camp about Brown’s role in an evolving offense.
Brown shot a pull-up three over Bridges with 36 seconds remaining in overtime, with Boston and Charlotte tied at 116, that missed and led to Bridges’ game-winner in transition. Tatum had come around a Kristaps Porziņģis screen and eyed the big man, who initially rolled into some traffic before Tatum dumped the ball to Brown, who had Porziņģis open in the paint with 13 seconds on the shot clock as Holiday and Payton Pritchard spaced. Perhaps Mazzulla’s insistence on the two-for-one forced the shot, but Brown also could’ve missed the read. Brown said earlier this year, more often than not, Porziņģis would be the read in actions.
“I think that’ll be the difference, if we’ll be able to have that mentality for longer durations during the season,” Brown said in October. “It’s tough being talented, because it invites laziness, it invites complacency, but that’s gonna be our enemy this season. It’s gonna be us vs. us. Our leaders on the team, we’ve gotta make sure that emphasis, from the top through the bottom, that we’ve gotta run through the finish line.”
Porziņģis, who hit the decisive free throws and cutting layup in Sunday’s squeak-out win in Memphis, didn’t shoot in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime aside from a put-back and long three late in the shot clock. That’s despite entering the game as the NBA’s most efficient post-up player with Boston scoring 1.60 points per possession when he takes the ball to the rim. Those mismatches arose throughout the last three games as rival big man Mark Williams focused on rotating to Boston’s wings. The Celtics rarely exploited them.
Porziņģis strangely stepped off the floor for the final defensive stand of regulation, Boston potentially worried about the three ahead by two as Brown, Holiday and Oshae Brissett played Charlotte’s double screen action high as Ball took the ball low to score uncontested. Tatum dribbled too much time off the clock before Sam Hauser missed a three-point heave at the buzzer.
Mazzulla complained about missed layups and turnovers on Sunday, but those happened in tandem with missed threes as the Celtics returned to shooting 50 (32%) in the loss. Boston, over the last three games, ranked 23rd in offense, 20th in shooting (53 eFG%), 28th in assist rate and 18th in defensive rebounding rate. They’re turning the ball over more (22nd) and got lucky to win two of the three (+0.3), in Mazzulla’s words.
“We couldn’t get it up, because there are three people there,” Mazzulla said on Sunday. “It’s just a matter of being disciplined to make the right play. It’s hard, because you’ve gotta make it over-and-over again. They’re one of the best teams in the league at protecting the rim and they give up the most threes in the league because of that. So something had to give there, and when you don’t make the right play at the rim, that puts you at a disadvantage. I thought that was the catalyst to some of their baskets and their offense, and some of the runs (Memphis) went on tonight.”
One of those plays came with a seven-point lead when Brown turned the corner around Porziņģis’ screen and shot a leaning baseline two over Williams. The Hornets exploded into a four-on-two, where Porziņģis and Brown both recovered to Hayward following a pass and left Ball wide open trailing for three. Elsewhere, Brown made plays dribbling around screens into a pull-up two to start overtime and to Holiday for a three that built the nine-point advantage. Brown finished with 12 points for the second straight game since his groin injury, shooting 5-for-17.
His role in crunch time remains pronounced. Only Tatum took more than Brown’s 11 shot attempts through seven clutch finishes, the two stars combing for five assists and seven turnovers. White, Holiday and Porziņģis, by contrast, combined for nine assists and three turnovers. Brown-to-Porziņģis remain one of the team’s strongest connections early in the schedule, Brown finding the latter for 93 passes and 16 assists so far.
For Brown, his shot totals reduced by roughly two per game, losing about one mid-range look per night and hitting the same (34%) amount of threes. His acclimation to the post-up (0.89 PPP) didn’t go as smoothly as Porziņģis and Tatum’s. Boston moved away from some of his rotations leading the bench unit, the Celtics falling 16.7 points worse with Brown on the floor compared off, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Transition remains his bread-and-butter, but the game slows down in crunch time, particularly in games like Monday’s that don’t feature many stops defensively. Some hope remains in the pick-and-roll, where he produced 0.87 PPP, second to White (0.98) on the roster.
That explains his heavy usage down the stretch. Others botched plays in this game, they missed free throws and effort impacted the result as much as execution. This defense rose to No. 1 status before Monday. Holiday shot 2-for-7 and fell guarding Ball at one point, Pritchard missed a key three and couldn’t hold a screen for Brown. Porziņģis and Hauser missed their shots.
This isn’t a Brown pile-on. He’s the one who always had to adjust most, but he’s shown the willingness to fit in at his best. He scored 25.5 PPG on 53.5% shooting in his four games prior to this recent slump. Together with Tatum, even with new personnel, Brown’s decision-making doomed Boston in the last two. It must improve.
“We’ve played a certain type of way the last couple of years,” Brown said earlier this month. “We’ve kind of switched up our play style, we have a lot more empty-corners, empty-side actions because that’s where our offense is headed … we’re used to being in the corner, but we’ve been having those corners clear to take away that over-help. It’s been a newer offensive system, play style, adjustment.”
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