Up and down – it fits this series quite nicely. So many signs of championship basketball, yet many reasons for concern. Ultimately, 2-2 feels about right in what has been a riveting Sixers series, even if it so thoroughly feels like the Celtics have overall been the better team. Here are my biggest takeaways on what the Celtics have shown us in these first four games.
Compensate For Colder Shooting Stretches Much, Much Quicker
It’s an inevitable truth that the shots aren’t always going to fall. For a team like the Celtics, who under Mazzula, have adhered to the philosophy that a high throughput of good three-point looks always pays off in the end, this can be especially dangerous. Finding a plan B when the shot isn’t consistently falling can be what differentiates a good team from a great team in the playoffs.
The Celtics showed flashes of this in game four, where Jayson Tatum, after starting 0-7 from the field, rebounded more, distributed the ball better, and went for easier looks. The team in general, in the second half, played intensely on the glass, prioritized high-percentage looks, and created possessions by getting stops. The problem here is that this happened in the second half. Tatum commands so much presence, as does Brown, that if either of them isn’t looking to take a shot, they still can function as decoys.
Being able to – before incurring a big deficit, that is – sacrifice scoring for a stretch and using their presence to misdirect the defense, isn’t an easy thing to do. But, it can open up the rest of the roster and take full advantage of the Celtics’ depth. For the team as a whole, it comes down to knowing when to take a break from the three and remembering how able they are to drive with their skill players, distribute to the inside with their excellent passing, or score inside with the power and timing of Robert Williams.
The Celtics Need To Navigate The Ends Of Games Better
In the four games in this series, there were two where the Celtics led throughout, and they won them both. In the two games that went to the wire, they lost both. Unfortunately for Celtics Nation, dominant wins and stolen losses count the same. A bit of end-of-game management could have won the Celtics this entire series in four games.
In game one, the Celtics had schematic misses late in the fourth. Brogdon had a turnover leading to an easy transition basket by Maxey, on a pass too late in the shot clock to pass in the first place. Then, an ill-advised switch gave Harden the space he needed for a game-winner. In game four, the Celtics didn’t show enough signs of learning from these mistakes.
On potential game-winning possessions late in regulation and in overtime, Mazzula chooses not to take timeouts in critical moments, forcing the Celtics to rush their final possessions. In either of those possessions, the Celtics could have clinched the game with a tad more time, and especially late in OT, they were just milliseconds away from a Marcus Smart buzzer-beater. Timeouts are there for a reason, and they need to be taken in moments like this, both to call a winning play and to give Boston more time.
Two other critical mistakes were made late, which if repeated, will cost the Celtics games down the road. Despite what happened late in game one, they doubled Embiid late in game four’s OT, leaving Harden open for the game-winner. As important as limited Embiid in that possession was, with the two-point lead, having a man ready to contest a corner three from Harden was as important, if not more. Boston cannot afford to allow stars the bandwidth to play their usual game in big moments.
Furthermore, the Celtics, on both potential game-winning possessions, only looked for the three and completely ignored the possibility of inside shots. Their philosophy of consistently going for the three cost them in important moments, moments where a two and three would be equally beneficial, and they would have been best off going for the high-percentage shot. They need the three to be an asset, but simply cannot afford to let it be a crutch.
These are all the result of the same problem – the Celtics don’t have the end-of-game presence they need, not on the court, and not on the sideline. They have plenty who are capable of it, but someone needs to step up and take control of the situation.
The Celtics are capable of winning it all, but if they don’t implement these necessary alterations, they may also be capable of having their season end in two more games.
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