Joe Mazzulla and Jaylen Brown couldn’t execute a timeout before dribbling in the closing seconds, nearly botching a chance at a go-ahead basket to close overtime for the Celtics against the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Fortunately, of course, Mazzulla held an extra timeout in his pocket and Boston advanced the ball anyway.
Marcus Smart and Grant Williams had miscommunicated a switch to allow Jarrett Allen a wide open dunk with Boston trailing by three points moments earlier. Jayson Tatum settled for three jump shots and traveled facing that same deficit. Then, Brown shot and missed a tough fadeaway that could’ve won the game.
“We drew up, we had a lot of space in the middle of the floor, and it was pretty much just get me the ball and make a play, and I came up short,” Brown said. “It felt alright, I wish I would’ve caught it a little closer where I could’ve gotten to my spot. I had two seconds. Two seconds is enough time to get a good look. I didn’t love it, but I got a clean look. It’s a makeable shot. I can knock that shot down. I’ve hit it before, just came up short.”
The Celtics already received their game-tying make from Tatum to force the extra period and wouldn’t get bailed out again. They played some of their best strings of defense all season, Derrick White and Tatum recording game-saving individual stops late in overtime. Officials gave Smart the benefit of the doubt in an overtime entanglement with Allen, and Smart’s attempt to draw a defensive foul on Evan Mobley on the other end led to a flimsy shot off the front rim. Celtics players took away from their own contributions with key mistakes, leading to a 114-113 loss and leaving Boston looking good, but not great with three losses in four games in a loaded east.
Mazzulla stressed getting back in transition between the first two quarters and continued to harp on it after the loss. His previous message about giving up timely offensive rebounds faded when Caris LeVert swooped into the paint like on Friday for a potential game-sealing offensive board. Darius Garland missed a free throw, opening the door for Tatum to take a handoff from Smart at mid-court and slam home a game-tying dunk. Pick up points, emphasized last week in practice, hampered the Celtics in their previous loss to the Cavs.
The Cavaliers could prove to be elite competition. They rank No. 7 in offense and No. 3 in defense after Wednesday’s win, sit in second place in the east at 6-1 and Garland posted 29 points, 12 assists and three steals on 9-for-20 shooting in his first full game of the season (eye injury). Donovan Mitchell and Garland connected seamlessly in crunch time for an alley-oop, recognizing the Celtics playing too far up in their transition defense.
Still, the Celtics look far from eastern conference favorites. Mitchell buried four straight shots in a one possession game with under three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Boston finally found the rim during that sequence, becoming too jump shot heavy during other segments of the game. It only helped them keep pace.
That best describes the Celtics so far this season. Inconsistent.
A sleepy defensive effort against Orlando could’ve resulted in a loss. They darted out to a nearly perfect first quarter in Chicago last week before actually capsizing into a blowout defeat, one more damaging due to interactions with officials. Grant’s suspension hurt Boston in Friday’s loss against Cleveland. The Celtics mixed up defensive coverages since, found something in Luke Kornet’s drop on Sunday and thrived at times switching in Cleveland. Offense, including missed Malcolm Brogdon layups, Brown’s dribbling issues, turnovers and shot selection, hurt them more yesterday. Boston ranks 17th on that end over its past three games.
They rely on the jump shot offensively more than other teams, the second best catch-and-shoot team and a poor pull-up team. The Celtics entered Wednesday’s game attempting 47.7% of their shot attempts from three and 44% in their latest loss, which would rank top-five league wide for the season. They’ve benefited from the best shooting start in the league (57.5 eFG%). That’ll come down to earth, even considering how quality their looks have been (32.1% att. open or wide open).
It’s still early for a group figuring out a new head coach, personnel and rotations. Boston entered the season with higher standards than a reset though. Mazzulla noted habits don’t necessarily reset from year-to-year after the first Cavaliers loss. Seeing connectivity, rather than concepts, challenge them is worrisome. They’ve seen progress, the Celtics a cut above last year in activity and efficiency (No. 8 offensively), but it’s come as they’ve strayed from what made them special one year ago. It doesn’t look hard to score on them anymore.
That’s all before addressing waning depth, Boston demanding 40 minutes from Al Horford to begin three games in three cities over four nights. The Celtics’ backup bigs don’t have Mazzulla’s total trust yet. Sam Hauser, effective in spots early this season, largely got played off the floor in Wednesday’s loss.
Chicago, visiting the Celtics on Friday, and Cleveland could potentially only represent the conference’s good teams. Boston hasn’t seen the great ones yet in Milwaukee, and potentially Toronto, based on their hot starts. If the Cavs are a Finals team, they’ve proven better than the Celtics through two meetings. And Mitchell just joined.
“Getting over the hump, it’s little, small details,” Mazzulla said. “They’re just habits that you have to build consistently, and every night, there’s no nights off. It’s just small plays here and there. Like I said, our effort is always there. Our intentionality is always there. Guys wants to win. It’s just small details that we have to work through over and over again. That’s all.”