BOSTON — The Celtics strangely settled into one strategy late. One they watched the Hawks try to employ unsuccessfully for much of the series they steered on the verge of losing on Tuesday. Whenever Sam Hauser entered the game, Trae Young found him, lining up for 12 possessions and scoring three points on 1-for-2 shooting. One of the few mismatches Atlanta can find, obsessing over creating it costs the offense time and structure in the half court — managing only 0.92 points per possession in those situations.
“If that’s what they want to do, great,” Hauser told CLNS Media before Game 5. “I’m used to it. It happens in virtually every game I play in, so it’s not like I’m not expecting it to happen. I know that we have help built in behind me, so that gives me confidence and I’m just exerting a lot of energy and doing my best to stay in front as best as I can. I guess we would rather have them do that (rather) than run their normal offense.”
After Hauser stood his ground to force a turnover on Aaron Holiday, a dump-off to Onyeka Okongwu for a post miss and later blocking Young in post position after he beat Robert Williams III downhill, the Celtics resorted to the same strategy against Young late with a 13-point lead. Boston tried to involve Young on seven straight plays as they capsized in a horrifying 119-117 Game 5 loss. The Celtics’ sets drained the shot clock, slowed the offense and grew predictable enough for Atlanta to counter and not expose themselves to the mismatch.
Cross-matching proved key to the series before it began, but so did pace. The Celtics wanted to run and identify them quickly in transition whenever possible. Then, defensive lapses like a miscommunication between Blake Griffin and Jaylen Brown allowed John Collins to score during a run of three straight Atlanta baskets. Tatum answered, finding White to his right after Young doubled, and White beat Bogdan Bogdanovic downhill in transition.
The problem — Tatum took 10 seconds to cross half court and didn’t unload the ball until seven seconds showed on the shot clock.
“Bad offensive execution,” Joe Mazzulla called it later. “I think it’s more we just lost our pace a little bit on the offensive end, probably on me trying to make sure we run a good play and we talked about playing faster down the stretch, and I thought we just lost some of our pace, which allowed them to pressure us and get into passing lanes.”
White brought the ball up next and the play took over 10 seconds to begin. Tatum exacerbated the problem by stepping outside the arc after catching the ball against De’Andre Hunter at the elbow. White tried a ghost screen that brought Young up to the ball and Tatum launched a long three-point miss with White open to his left. Bogdanovic blew up White’s screen to switch Brown onto Young, and Brown spun into a fadeaway miss with five seconds left on the shot clock.
Then, ahead by only six points, Tatum thought he screened himself onto Young, only for Bogdanovic to scramble him into the play, Young shifting onto Al Horford in the corner, while Hunter doubled away from White and smacked Tatum’s pass attempt into the back court. Tatum’s loose ball foul placing Atlanta in the bonus.
Young doubled instead of switching on the next possession, stealing Marcus Smart’s entry to Tatum. Then, Boston ran the same exact screening action, only Smart split Young and Hunter and found Horford for a corner three that he missed and Williams III put back. The Celtics finally scored after four empty possessions, but slowing down for those sets let the Hawks back within three points and magnified mistakes on the ensuing sets.
“I don’t have that answer,” Horford said earlier this season asked about Boston’s overtime loss to the Knicks. “As you can see, it is frustrating at how you look so good at one end, and then at the other end, the complete opposite type of thing. All year, we’ve had a good mindset of good or bad, continuing to play through things and for whatever reason, these last few games, we haven’t been like that … this is something that we need to be conscious of and need to be better and try to eliminate those bad runs.”
Tuesday’s collapse left the Celtics with a -43.8 net rating in three crunch times this series, scoring 100 points per 100 possessions in the clutch, less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime of a five-point game. They gave the ball away on over 17% of the possessions and shot 7-for-15 (0-6 3PT) as they fell in close Games 3 and 5. Their clutch win came in Game 4, with Jaylen Brown staving off a late Atlanta rally while Tatum struggled.
Tatum embraced responsibility after Game 3, saying he gets the credit when Boston wins and deserves blame when the team loses. An 8-for-21 showing in Game 5, 9-for-34 three-point shooting slump over his last three games and his role walking the ball up the floor positioned him on the hot seat for sending the series south again. Brown missed two free throws and Onyeka Okongwu blocked his aggressive drive attempt, Smart fouled Young in the bonus and committed a costly offensive foul and Williams III missed a late layup. The pace issue seems to fall on the team’s star though, who typically commands the ball in crunch time.
“I think more so, we just gotta be aware and continue to play the way that got us that lead,” Tatum told CLNS Media at shootaround on Thursday. “There’s a natural effect of, when you have a lead in the game and the clock is winding down in the last couple of minutes, you want to take some time away, but you still want to get the best shot. If that’s in the first six seconds or last six seconds, each possession is different.”
The difference between when the Celtics create quick shots, a Mazzulla emphasis, and wait until the clock ticks close to zero stood out during the regular season. Boston’s offense shot 56.9% FG within the first two seconds of the shot clock, 54.5% with between 22-18 seconds remaining and fell to 37.8% with fewer than four left. They shot 35.2% late in shot clocks in the fourth quarter, the sixth-worst mark in the NBA. That doesn’t include turnovers, which devastated the Celtics in Game 5 and reduced from 2022 thanks to quick decision-making during the year.
Boston improved from those crunch time debacles that marked last season, particularly the winter of 2022 where late games collapses seemed to occur every other night, culminating in the infamous 25-point meltdown against New York that put this team’s core in question. That question could return again if the Celtics can’t escape a first round series they led 3-1 against the inconsistent Hawks. Boston knows it can play better in those situations.
“We played not to lose instead of just playing to win the game,” Smart told CLNS. “That happens, unfortunately it happened to us and we just made things a little bit harder for ourselves. We got another great opportunity to be here … we’re trying to get the right shot and we got some really talented guys that can do a lot of things individually. We trust in that, and it’s helped us and sometimes it hasn’t. We’ve just gotta keep the balance of the individual things, going one-on-one, and just continuing to move the ball and not let it get stuck and get us stagnant on the offensive end.”