Welcome back, readers, to our weekly edition of our very own Celtics Report. In this week’s edition, we take a look at the start of the Celtics West Coast trip with their games against the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.
The Celtics are going nowhere without an upgrade in wing depth
A common thread throughout all of the games this week was the poor bench play of the Celtics, particularly at the wings. Obviously, the Celtics are home to two of the best starting wing players in the league right now in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, but when one or both are off the floor, the Celtics seem to lose direction on both sides of the ball. Typically, I would say that Kemba Walker would be the guy to lead the second unit through those minutes, but despite my best efforts to prop him up last week, he has not produced at the level we thought he would. This leaves a clear void in the Celtics game plan where there is only one reliable scorer on the court at any time. Take this to the game Wednesday night against the Kings, where Kemba was given the night off to rest. When Tatum and Brown were on the floor, the offense was rolling, consistently going on long runs and moving the ball well and with purpose. However, once Tatum was off the floor, the offense became wild and uncoordinated, and fell prey to the fast pace of the Sacramento Kings offense as they outran the Celtics up and down the floor. Similar situations occurred in the game against the Lakers last Saturday, where Kemba went 1-11 and could not carry the second unit when Tatum and Brown were off the floor, allowing the Lakers superior depth to claw their way back into the game. Obviously the Celtics are missing some key rotation guys due to injury right now, with Kemba still working his way back to full strength and Marcus Smart out for 2-3 weeks with a calf strain he suffered against the Lakers, but these guys can only do so much on the offensive end when the players around them are not impactful. I believe that the Celtics need to make a big move in the next couple weeks and make a trade for a veteran wing who can help carry the offense when Tatum and Brown are off the court; someone like Harrison Barnes, JJ Reddick or Victor Oladipo could be a big help to this team with tiding through the minutes Brown and Tatum are on the bench.
We need to see Jayson Tatum become a lead playmaker
With Kemba out Wednesday night, Jayson Tatum picked up the primary playmaking duties for the Celtics, and posted a near triple-double with 27 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. I believe this is the direction Brad Stevens and the Celtics should head in for the future of the franchise. With the previously mentioned struggles of Walker as of late, the Celtics get more value offensively when Tatum handles the ball and creates plays. Naturally, he can’t and won’t be the initiator for every play the Celtics run during the course of a game, as Kemba and Jaylen are still very good in those roles, but Tatum proved to me that when he has the ball the Celtics are much better and efficient. His ability to score at every level, particularly with craft layups and his patented side-step three mean that he is a constant scoring threat that must be checked by all defenses. His ability to score draws extra attention to him, meaning double and even triple teams can leave shooters wide open on the perimeter for easy 3-point shots or backdoor cuts to the rim. While Kemba possesses a similar skill set, Tatum has the size advantage that allows him to see the court with ease, even on the run and in traffic, and his ability to accurately deliver passes and alley-oops make him deadly in the pick and roll. Just as Brown has taken his game to the next level with great shot creation, Tatum’s next step is continued usage and development of his playmaking abilities in the half court.
The dreadful fourth quarter
If this past week showed us anything, it’s that the Celtics have a problem locking up games in the fourth quarter. In the Lakers game, the Celtics held a seven-point lead going into the fourth quarter, but were only able to put up 17 points in the final quarter while giving up 25. In the game on Wednesday against the Kings, the Celtics put up an impressive 29 points against a poor Kings defense, but allowed an abysmal 35 points to the Kings, including 11 points to Kings guard De’Aaron Fox as Sacramento rallied back to win against the Celtics. There are multiple different reasons for why the Celtics are losing these close games, one of which is that they are 26th in the league in fourth quarter scoring this season with only 25.3 points. Their scoring problems are exaggerated with Kemba Walker’s inconsistent play as of late, with his last second missed two-pointer capping of a 17 point fourth quarter effort as a team and a 1-11 shooting night for Walker. Another reason could be their porous defensive play in the fourth quarter this season, allowing the seventh most points in the NBA in fourth quarters this season with 27.9 points. Their defense showed its ugly head again in a loss to the Kings as Fox took over and shredded the Celtics defense in an 11-point comeback win in the fourth. Ultimately, I believe the source of the Celtics lackluster fourth quarter play comes down to a lack of effort. There are multiple possessions on defense in all three of the games this past week where centers are left unchecked in the paint for offensive rebounds, rotations are missed that allow open threes and bad transition defense that gives opponents uncontested layups on the other end. By the time the Celtics feel the heat late in games, it’s often too late for them to have a legitimate chance to make a comeback as their offense just doesn’t have enough juice to comeback. Offensively, the effort isn’t there either, including taking ridiculous contested shots and a lack of effort while fighting for offensive rebounds. I understand that you can’t win every close game, and that some nights shots just won’t fall, but there are clear steps that can be taken towards winning these games by just increasing your defensive intensity and fighting hard for good shots, free throws and rebounds on the offensive end, while playing with intensity and communication on the defensive end.
That’ll do it for this week. Next week will focus on the rest of Boston’s West Coast trip, including games against the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers, the struggling Phoenix Suns and the holders of the league’s best record in the Utah Jazz.