Floating around .500 and the need to move the ball

Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) blocks a shot by Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Welcome back to another edition of our Celtics weekly report. This week we look at the continued struggles of the C’s as they stand at 14-14, their lackluster defense against some of the league’s best stars and one aspect of the offense that I believe must improve for the Celtics to win games.  

Dealing With Mediocrity  

The Celtics started this season 7-3, with impressive wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers. They looked like they could be the contenders fans believed they would be heading into the season, but then COVID-19 hit the team hard taking out bench players and crucially benching star Jayson Tatum. Since their great start, the Celtics have recorded a less than stellar 7-11 record, dropped to No. 5 in the East and currently sit only one game ahead of three teams with the possibility to fall all the way to No. 8. As if it couldn’t get worse, the Celtics can’t seem to win against the league’s worst teams, with losses to the Pistons, Wizards and Hawks sending fans into a spiral of gloom. The promising start to the season has been lost, and we are left with questions as to chemistry and talent as the C’s try to lift themselves back up to the top four teams in the conference.  

Perhaps the biggest questions that have been asked are on Tatum’s health following his bout with COVID-19. In a media conference before their Tuesday night win against the Denver Nuggets, Tatum commented on the lasting impacts of the virus on him, explaining, “I think it messes with your breathing a little bit.” He continued on, clarifying that “I have experienced some games where, I don’t want to say [I was] struggling to breathe, but, you know, you get fatigued a lot quicker than normal.” This would explain some of Tatum’s recent struggles, including a six-point outing against the Wizards Sunday night in which he shot 3-14 from the field. The effects that COVID-19 has on young athletes like Tatum are still unknown, and so all we can do is hope that these lingering effects are short term and not career-altering.  

I believe the team understands that they are not playing up to their standards as of late, as emerging star Jaylen Brown mentioned in his post-game press conference against following a loss to the Hawks Wednesday night. 

“We’ve just got to find some consistency, and that was probably tough to watch, it’s tough to play, but I think that there’s a lot to learn and improve on moving towards the future,” Brown said.  

With still an incredibly young roster, the team is learning what it takes to compete at the highest levels in the NBA, especially when luck is not on their side on the injury front. This brings me to one big absence from the team in Marcus Smart. After suffering a left calf injury early in a game against the Lakers, Smart was sidelined for two to three weeks, but as we approach the end of the three week window it appears that Smart will be sidelined for even longer as he continues to work his way back. His defensive impact is a crucial cog of the Celtics defense, and without him on the floor the defensive intensity has not been present. This is especially prevalent as superstars across the league continue to drop 30- and 40-point games on them. Unless they can pick up their intensity, they will be shredded apart until their all NBA defender comes back.  

The Importance of Moving The Ball 

Another flaw of the Celtics over their losing stretch has been in inability to move the ball in their offense. So far this season, The Celtics are 28th in the league in assists, highlighting an offensive identity that encourages isolation and one-on-one offense more than passing and setting up efficient shots around the floor.  

Realistically speaking, I’m not expecting the Celtics to turn into a Golden State Warriors style offense, but I do expect the ball to flow much more than it has been this season. One of the problems is the amount of isolation plays the Celtics run, ranking fifth in the NBA in isolation frequency, yet only rank 24th in points per possession on those isolation plays. On top of this, the Celtics stars are not considered playmakers, with Tatum only averaging 4.7 assists and Brown with 3.6 assists per game. Considering that these two touch the ball the most on the team, it would make sense if they had higher assist totals. I believe that the problem stems from a bench that is inconsistent and not filled with good 3-point shooters, as well as an identity that values Brown and Tatum creating for themselves over the ball moving to the open man.  

Now with this said, this style of offense can work, but it is heavily reliant on Brown and Tatum performing well every night, putting immense pressure on the two young stars to do most of the production for the team. If head coach Brad Stevens wants to continue this approach, then I want to see Brown and Tatum become more of a passing threat with the ball in their hands. More action off of the ball would help open up shooters for easy shots, while also opening up driving lanes for the Celtics superstars to attack the rim, where I believe they are at their best. An added benefit to increased ball movement is that it stretches out the defense, forcing them to always be on the move while keeping track of their assignment. Against weaker defenses, this will lead to far more scoring opportunities and will help immensely in getting wins over teams at the bottom of the league.  

That’s all for this week, next week we will see if the Celtics can bounce back as they face the Atlanta Hawks at home before heading out for road games against the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks and Hawks.  

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