BOSTON — Jaylen Brown began the night attacking Pacers defenders in the half court, shaking Myles Turner for a mid-range two around an off-ball screen, then taking off in transition for buckets from Derrick White on the run. Brown scored 10 points in 10 minutes while Jayson Tatum flushed a rolling dunk after screening for White, but missed three more shots inside before taking an early breather.
Tatum went on to score 32 points with 12 rebounds, six assists and two turnovers, connecting twice with Brown, who scored 30 points with no assists. Fine stats on paper — their combined playmaking production fell short of a Pacers masterclass. Indiana dished 28 assists on 43 baskets, turning it over six times despite flying up-and-down the floor. Brown got caught against a Buddy Hield screen that he didn’t hold, freezing Brown as Al Horford dropped, forcing Brown to rise up and foul Haliburton on a four-point play that keyed a 122-112 win.
“They definitely play at a pace that’s a lot faster than a lot of the teams we’ve played,” Brown said, via NBC. “Maybe got us sped up a little bit, but we’ve gotta take care of the ball better. We just had a bad night taking care of the ball and they got it going.”
While 17 turnovers tied the second-highest total the Celtics committed this year, it also marked the ninth straight game they’d given away more than 10 possessions and followed a sloppy win over Philadelphia that featured a season-high 20. Tatum bounced back from seven on Friday before his ejection, leading a 31-26 second quarter run with assists to Jrue Holiday and White for layups. Those three assists pushed Boston ahead 47-46, then Tatum opened up his own offense attacking Haliburton into the post — one score a highlight spin into a dunk.
Tatum capped the run pulling up from the half court and hitting. Then he fouled Bruce Brown on the other end, grabbing his head in frustration and walking away from the official. He didn’t receive a technical foul, never mind an ejection, in this game. Yet decision-making lapses between Tatum and the team’s other playmakers into the third cost the Celtics what could’ve become a double-digit lead. A 37-23 meltdown began with Tatum’s errant alley-oop pass to Horford. Tatum look at the official after trying to retrieve it.
Brown, who sat the final 5:21 of the second and hadn’t shot in six minutes, exited halftime ready to fire. He found success attacking Turner and Obi Toppin, then drove into a block and forced an elbow jumper. White gave away the ball twice as the Pacers stormed back, finishing with five turnovers in an uncharacteristic night. Holiday disappeared after halftime, taking one shot with one assist in 21 minutes where he never received a chance to commit a turnover.
Tatum left the floor with 4:44 remaining, leaving Brown and the bench unit to shoot 1-for-7 with three giveaways over the ensuing possessions. Brown’s live ball feed to TJ McConnell on the break led Hield to dunk for an 11-point Indiana lead. The Celtics went on to miss inside shots early, hit tough twos to pull into a tie and lost following defensive breakdowns against Haliburton, a defensive miscommunication covering Hield and an uncharacteristic White turnover that placed Boston in a nine-point hole late.
“Our turnovers, it’s hard to withstand,” Mazzulla said. “You just let them get out in transition. I just thought we lost some of our offensive purpose. They didn’t take care of the ball and I think we had seven turnovers in the third quarter. When you do that against that team, they make you pay … offense and defense are connected, so if you turn the ball over, your defense isn’t going to be as good.”
The mounting turnover problem accentuated Boston’s diminishing three-point returns. During the Celtics’ nine-game regression on offense stemming back to their win in Toronto, they’ve turned the ball over on 15.5% of their possessions, ranking 25th over that stretch. Their recent assist rate remains low (60.9%, 24th), due to a continued focus on isolation play, which Brown didn’t realize. Over that stretch, Tatum has committed 38 assists and 37 turnovers, while Brown served 27 and 22, respectively. Brown’s on-off numbers cratered to -10.8 per 100.
Kristaps Porziņģis missed four of those games, including the loss at Indiana, complicating their reads, but Horford proved a net positive for the offense with 29 assists and seven turnovers. White remains a strength aside from Monday. Holiday will do whatever the team asks. Yet Tatum’s time on the ball increased to 4.9 minutes per game compared to 4.4 through the team’s 6-2 start. Brown remains fourth in that hierarchy after splitting time more evenly with Malcolm Brogdon off the bench last year. Boston’s offensive rating fell to 10th on Monday.
The Celtics might need to tinker with rotations upon Porziņģis’ return if his overwhelming post presence doesn’t solve some of the offensive stickiness. They’re missing inside attempts, as Zach Lowe outlined, but that’s not their style and their outside shooting dipping below 36% would always challenge that drive-and-kick approach. They rank 28th in total passes, a number that never rose far from the bottom of the league even during the hot start.
They found a way to win 6-of-9 through this drought anyway, progress after losing 13-of-19 when they finished below league average from three last year. Yet turnovers never became quite this much of a problem for last year’s Celtics though, ranking seventh in limiting them. Now, they keep on coming.
“They put a lot of pressure on us and that group,” Brown said. “We just couldn’t get organized. We had some turnovers, some bad shots that turned into transition points for them and we got caught up in the rat race and we should’ve just settled down a little bit. We didn’t in that third quarter and I think that was the game.”