BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla spent another game directing the Celtics’ players to different spots on the floor, Jayson Tatum waved his arm to get a teammate out of the lane on an early possession as Boston shot 4-for-10 from three in the first quarter and built a 15-point lead on the Knicks, but only one shot at the rim.
Mazzulla doesn’t want to interfere with the Celtics’ flow on offense. He appeared increasingly tempted as he called four timeouts through three quarters and stressed connectedness, spacing and offensive habits waning recently. Successful sets faded two minutes into the second quarter through a flurry of turnovers, bad rim reads and forced shots against tight defense that made a late comeback attempt difficult, then untenable.
“Our offense put us in tough spots,” Mazzulla said. “You can’t guard turnovers and you can’t guard missed layups at the rim, and so we had multiple possessions at the end of the third, beginning of the fourth where we turned it over, and the wrong read at the rim is as detrimental as a turnover, so they were able to get out on transition … we’re still relatively good (with rim reads), we just have to be consistent with it.”
Offensive consistency eluded the Celtics since late-November when their hot shooting start regressed and forced the team to lean back into their defensive identity. They did so by trapping, running and erasing an 11-point Knicks lead in the final five minutes to force overtime, where Boston took a five-point lead that doomed them. They slowed down after, settled for jump shots and generated one bucket, out of timeout, in the final four minutes, losing 120-117 after Jaylen Brown missed two free throws with the Celtics trailing by one point.
The late miscue hurt less than Brown and Tatum’s approach throughout the game filling in as facilitators for the third straight game without Marcus Smart, who the TNT broadcast indicated may miss closer to two weeks with his ankle injury. Boston ranked 25th in offense during its losing streak, 24th in turnover percentage and 26th in three-point shooting efficiency as trends that started prior exacerbate without their point guard available. Poor showings in Florida sounded alarms excused by absences. They continued to sound most of their unit intact.
While only the Celtics’ second three-game skid this season, their scoring slump extends further to their loss at the Warriors. Their offense ranks 24th since then over 24 games (111.0 points per 100 possessions), their shooting efficiency fell to 25th after a historic start (52.9 eFG%) and they’ve only outscored opponents by 2.0 points per 100 despite a third-ranked defensive effort over that stretch. The Lakers have shot better from three since November. Mazzulla, usually optimistic after losses, said they didn’t play well and put pressure on their defense. He urged them to remember what they do at their best.
“Just not getting bored with the simple plays,” Mazzulla said. “Doing the little things that work all the time. Sometimes that can be really hard over the long course of a season. You just can’t get bored doing those things, they’re very, very simple. The simplest things breed the most rewards on both ends.”
Boston managed one game with its starting unit from last year together against Golden State, one of their better wins all season, before Smart fell injured in Toronto. Williams III and Al Horford have rested, Brogdon missed the Florida trip for personal reasons and Brown continues to manage an adductor strain. A relatively healthy Celtics team, Williams III aside, gelled offensively at a historic level while Derrick White joined the starters.
Brown’s return from a night off in Miami, shooting 8-for-22 from the field and 1-for-8 from three, seemed to impact White, who only took three shots inside the arc. Grant Williams shot 0-for-2 from two, continuing his slump as defenses take him out of the corners.
The bench struggled to meet New York’s athleticism and activity. Malcolm Brogdon recorded all of the second unit’s assists, and the big men received only spot touches.
Playmaker-by-committee fell in favor of dominant Tatum ball time, and Brown lost the ball into overtime. Mazzulla dug into the team along the sideline at points. Horford spoke to Brown. Mazzulla to Grant after a travel.
“I don’t claim to be the smartest guy in the room, even though I did go to Duke, but when it goes down to offensive efficiency numbers and things like that, but sometimes when you break it down, the difference between the best offense and the 14th-best offense may be like 2-4 points,” Tatum said. “In the course of the game, that’s a couple missed layups and threes. I just thing our last couple of games, like tonight … late in the game, we got some good looks, they just didn’t fall. We’ve still been playing the right way, we’ve still been playing with a sense of purpose and pace. Sometimes that s*** just don’t go in. It’s as easy as that.”
Tatum had a point about the thin line between Thursday marking a triumph over a tough Knicks team and a terrible offensive showcase where the Celtics managed 41-of-100 shooting. They leaned on three second-chance baskets to stay within one possession entering half time while Jalen Brunson tortured them. They shot 7-for-22 in the third quarter, then used traps and attacked the Knicks’ prevent defense to overcome a late deficit.
Tatum held and held and held the ball for nearly 20 second before launching a last-second heave Williams III grabbed and couldn’t kick back out with Jericho Sims in front of him to end the fourth. Overtime became one of the team’s most stagnant efforts all season. Tatum and Brown took turns attacking in isolation, saved only by a foul call for the former and Brogdon offensive rebound following the latter.
The Celtics held the ball for the entirety of the shot clock before launching Brogdon and Horford three-point misses. Williams III and Horford brought a crowd into the paint on his final drive, chased the miss and RJ Barrett beat them down the court for a corner three that won the game.
Mazzulla finally stepped in, too late, with a play call to get Brown the ball driving baseline in a misdirection after, and Tatum’s quick skip pass out of a Knicks trap with 10 seconds to play set up the decisive free throw misses once Brogdon found Brown.
“(I was) just inefficient. I didn’t insert myself into the game, I was just kind of waiting around for the game to come you (me), at points. I’m one of the players who can be aggressive and take control of the game, I didn’t do that,” Brown said. “I had a couple of turnovers that I could’ve took back, and overall, just a lackluster performance … it just wasn’t a version of Jaylen that I know I can be.”