BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla knew entering the Celtics’ rematch against a nearly healthy Clippers team that Boston would see plenty of switching. For all the growth the Celtics achieved with Kristaps Porziņģis in the lineup, and the 10-2 record and +8.3 net rating in his absence, Mazzulla continued to fear switching, seeing it bother Boston in the loss at Golden State and tinkering with a higher pace and new offensive concepts to beat it. They followed that defeat with back-to-back 144 point outbursts over the Kings and Clippers, albeit without Kawhi Leonard.
“When they came to LA, they did us pretty bad,” Ty Lue said on Saturday. “Guys were locked in … this was a game, P.G., we thought he might be out, but he wanted to play to see where we’re at. Just a measuring stick against a great team. We just wanted to see where we were at … we didn’t even play great … I just thought defensively, we just did some good things, trying to keep (Jayson Tatum) off-balance, blitzing him, switching, firing, not letting him get comfortable. Same thing with Jaylen (Brown).”
Leonard returned for the rematch and scored 26 points in 29 minutes on 10-for-15 shooting, providing the modest scoring performance LA needed on a night where their switching defense devastated the Boston. Through three quarters, the Celtics shot 29.7% from the field, 6-for-30 from three (20%) and generated 10 free throws and sat their starters in the fourth, losing Luke Kornet to a hamstring injury and falling 112-92 after trailing by 31 after the third quarters. It marked the third straight defeat against one of the league’s elite teams after their breakthrough against Minnesota, and a second straight loss at home following their 20-0 start at home.
With plenty of success packed between, a bad shooting performance explained most of the loss, particularly when the Celtics shot 14-for-32 around the rim through three quarters while Joe Mazzulla noted those misses and turnovers put enormous pressure on Boston’s defense. That faltered into the third quarter, when the Celtics got their butts kicked, in Mazzulla’s words.
“Missed shots, missed layups,” Mazzulla said. “I thought they did a good job of messing up the timing of every one of our passes with their active hands. So what looked like a guy open, we missed it a half a second because of their activity and their active hands. It messed up the timing and the rhythm of our offense, especially when we got into the paint … one of the strengths of this time is at moments of inefficient offense, we still had really good defense … creating some transition opportunities. Tonight, not so much … you have to continue to fight for possessions of speed, possessions of creating separation and at some point you’ve gotta make shots whether it’s a layup, three, pull-up.”
Tatum and Jrue Holiday felt similarly, enjoying the looks they got in what became the polar opposite of the Celtics’ historically hot shooting game in Miami on Thursday. They would’ve still won that game with a more modest showing, but erupting to 80% TS launched them ahead by 30 points for the ninth time over their last 21 games. Saturday marked only the team’s second uncompetitive blowout loss of the season after their visit to Milwaukee earlier this month and all its obvious caveats. This time, the Clippers entered on the second half of a back-to-back, also missing their starting center Ivica Zubac and only out-shooting Boston 8-6 from deep at the end of the third.
LA won on the margins, 16-10 in free throw attempts, 5-8 in turnovers and 17-3 in second chance points while outscoring the Celtics 16-11 on the run. Mazzulla blamed bad crashing angles for the lack of put-backs. LA’s 50-28 advantage through three quarters became their most staggering advantage while the Clippers sometimes showed two on the ball, pulled the big man up other times and usually allowed the ball to land in the corner. Holiday finished 0-for-3 there and 1-for-7 from three as a whole. Derrick White and Al Horford combined to shoot 0-for-13 from the field with two points. Tatum said it wasn’t always obvious who to attack on LA’s defense.
“It’s definitely humbling,” Holiday said. “To be able to come home and get your butt kicked, but we know it’s a long season, we know we can learn from this and just hold it in our back pocket. It’ll always be in the back of our head when we have a good game the game before. They’re a really good defensive team, a lot of length, athleticism to be able to guard one-through-four, one-through-five … we had a lot of good shots, a lot of wide open shots, missed them. I think sometimes that kind of affects our defense, but at the end of the day you’ve still gotta take them, even when they’re not falling. It looks bad, but you’ve still gotta keep going out there and shooting them.”
Mazzulla previously acknowledged the Celtics’ challenges against switching in December, indicating that their latest issues against a smaller, more versatile defensive team didn’t come simply as a result of a shooting anomaly. Denver closed its win over the Celtics one week earlier with a switching scheme that took Porziņģis out of play and limited Boston to one basket late.
LA’s system baffled Horford in the short roll and on one possession led Tatum to pass right to Paul George. Brown mostly played five-on-five basketball, finishing 3-for-13 taking difficult pull-up jumpers. Tatum picked up a technical foul during the Clippers’ decisive 36-21 third quarter after driving to the rim, grabbing his own misses in the crowd and botching two more layups. He took to the podium almost immediately after the loss and said Boston didn’t deserve to win.
“I think we just can’t be predictable,” Tatum said. “You have to be decisive and try to manipulate the defense. They have schemes, they’re well-coached, they got good players over there. You’ve gotta throw counter-punches at them and make adjustments throughout the game.”