NEW YORK — Shots didn’t fall, so the Celtics lost.
A familiar refrain returned in more extreme form while the Celtics set their season low, 21.4%, from three in a 109-94 loss to the Knicks the team took solace in not becoming a larger blowout.
Boston only briefly trailed by 20 points in the first half, spending most of the night in striking distance thanks to that three point volume, Joe Mazzulla observed. As the Celtics played large for most of the night again and juggled new rotations, Marcus Smart struggled at 2-for-7 from deep, the bench lost during the expected New York second unit surge and double big units appeared on the court throughout despite Boston leaning on the three to work its way back.
“Defensively, they’re a team that runs you off the line,” Brogdon told CLNS Media. “They force you to take tough threes or put the ball on the ground and get inside, and then their bigs are waiting at the rim, so they push you to take mid-range shots, and in today’s game analytics wise, those aren’t the most high percentage.”
When NBA results finalized on Monday night, the Celtics no longer held the east’s No. 1 seed for the first time in 68 days. A reminder of how thin the line between rest, experimentation and winning lies into the final month.
Al Horford hit Boston’s first try in the corner on a feed from Tatum before the Celtics missed their next 11 looks in the first quarter, falling into their worst frame all season while taking that many attempts, matching another 1-for-12 stretch against the Magic during a December team-wide shooting slump. Horford missed his second try, Tatum hit the rim on a pair, then Derrick White fell short before Horford scored inside. Three more misses from deep followed as RJ Barrett’s early struggles kept the Celtics within a possession.
Joe Mazzulla worried about the Knicks’ second unit more than their starters though, and they damaged Boston when Mitchell Robinson blocked Tatum, stole a pass from at mid-court and set up consecutive Immanuel Quickley baskets before flushing his own alley-oop. Robinson’s post presence limited the Celtics to 36 shots in the paint, below their season average, as Boston struggled again to find offensive units.
“They’re bottom five in the league in above the break threes given up,” Mazzulla said. “If their No. 1 job is to protect the paint, what’s the plan on running into the paint, so can you get easy ones early in the shot clock off maybe layups, cuts? But when you’re in that half court setting because of … our fouling, because they made shots in the half court setting, you gotta take the ones that are there and a huge strength of ours is the ability to generate a really good open book. And so, you know, off the top of my head, I feel like every three we took was a good shooter and a good shot … what you don’t want is to give them what they’re best at, and that’s protecting the rim, active hands, turnovers, then they get out in transition.”
Jaylen Brown missed the game for personal reasons and created more rotation challenges Mazzulla tried to solve early by replacing Robert Williams III with Blake Griffin midway through the first quarter, who fouled twice and missed a pair of threes. He did not return after the Celtics lost those minutes by 11 points. Sam Hauser started strong in the second quarter by recording a pair of stops on Barrett that led to Williams III lobs, but finished 0-for-3 from deep and committed an offensive foul running into his teammate.
Grant Williams playing with Williams III and the two backup guards saw their deficit increase to 20 points in the second quarter while free throws and jump shots from Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Quickley piled up against them. Mazzulla returned to the double big unit and the Celtics pulled off their most convincing run of the night, 10-0 to cut the lead in half, but Tatum and Horford missed consecutive threes after, and Barrett scored five straight to reestablish a big lead for the rest of the night. Boston’s starting big men lost by 12 points per 100 possessions in 16 minutes, posting a 103.1 offensive rating in the loss.
“There’s a process that we have to go through,” Horford said. “For a lot of time this year, we weren’t at full strength, and whether it was Rob out or Smart out for an extended period of time, now this is our time. Indiana, we played a certain way, Philly, played a certain way, tonight, so I feel like we’re continuing to really find it, and I see this as a great opportunity, because these are the games we need to understand how we want to play, who do we have out there and I feel like this is what this last stretch is all about.”
“When we’re playing double big, Rob’s involved in pick-and-roll a lot more, I’m spaced out, or if I’m involved in it, then I’m making decisions once I catch it at the rim, either Rob or spraying it back out. It’s stuff that we’ve done before, but I feel like it takes time to understand how we need to play.”
Boston produced quality threes to start the third and cut New York’s lead to 12 before shaking up their rotation again by playing Mike Muscala, who hadn’t played in three games. He recorded a weak side block on Quentin Grimes on his first defensive possession before the Knicks searched for him in Boston’s switches and forced him to foul twice. A missed back line assignment playing next to Tatum almost led Robinson to grab an offensive board. Malcolm Brogdon, who shot 10-for-16 in 27 minutes, scored five straight points and the Knicks’ lead dropped to nine before frustration with officiating culminated in a Tatum technical and eventual ejection.
The Celtics rode record three-point shooting in the same building to a blowout win earlier this season. A pair of Hauser and Muscala misses led the team to an 8-for-38 start. Mazzulla closed the night with double big and Brogdon playing in place of White. Offensive rebounding became Mazzulla’s hope to avert the poor shooting.
While he also hoped a few more made threes would successfully close the gap, leaning on the more defensive starting group that hasn’t received enough repetitions to generate consistent offense yet through eight games, posting a 105.0 offensive rating, turned into another lost another opportunity on Monday. When asked about some of the lineup choices and combinations over the last three games, Mazzulla left it at matchups.
“I definitely feel good about that group, because of what they’ve shown,” Mazzulla said. “They haven’t had the time they’ve needed on the floor to play through stuff, but I love that group and I think they’ll be great for us.”