A third-quarter collapse
A second straight loss in the series opener
For the second straight series, the Boston Celtics have dropped their opening game in front of a packed TD Garden. So far, this team has played 8 postseason games at home, losing 4 of them.
A 50% win rate in front of your own fans doesn’t scream homecourt advantage, but if we’re being honest, that only comes into play when it’s a do-or-die situation.
Still, you’re supposed to win these games. Playing at home is when your role players are meant to find new gear and give you that extra pizzazz off the bench. Yet, it was Miami’s role players that stole the show last night.
Kyle Lowry found a gear that has often been dormant in recent months, Max Strus continues to give the Celtics rueful nightmares, and Caleb Martin is proving to be a gritty difference-maker off the bench.
This loss is on Boston, though.
“Sometimes we didn’t get back,” Jayson Tatum said after the game. “Had some turnovers. Spacing. Defensive coverages that we got mixed up on - that we went over today at shootaround. So a lot of things we can control, to be better at.”
There was a lack of execution as the Celtics came into the third quarter on both ends of the floor. The defense looked sloppy at times, and while the offense generated good shots for the most part, it wasn’t able to convert at a rate that would sustain a lead this deep into the playoffs.
“We just gave up 46 points in the third,” Tatum said. “You know, that’s defense. Transition. Offensive rebounds. Not closing out to shooters. So that’s some things that we really gotta focus on and go over tomorrow at practice.”
Coming into this series, you knew that Bam Adebayo was going to be a different type of challenge for the Celtics’ defense after spending the last 7 games defending Joel Embiid.
Sure, both bigs are threats around the free-throw line extended, and both like to do their work on the elbows and at the nail. Yet, when Embiid faces up, the likelihood is that he’s going to shoot it — very rarely will he look to attack the defense off the dribble.
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It’s there, in the face-up game, where Adebayo poses a different threat, as he is more than capable of creating his own looks off the dribble when getting the ball around the elbow or in at the slot/wing area.
Take a look at the above clip. First, notice the weakside action where Max Strus sets a flare screen for Kevin Love, with Jimmy Butler looking to feed the veteran in his sweet spot.
Jaylen Brown does a good job of denying the entry pass, forcing Love into setting an exit screen for Gabe Vincent to create a mismatch with Marcus Smart under the rim, thus creating a solid rebounding opportunity.
Yet, as soon as the flare action is denied, Butler goes to Adebayo on the weakside post, where there’s an empty corner, thus giving him more room to work.
From there, Adebayo can face up, put the ball on the floor, and attack the space Boston’s defense is giving up due to their focus on defending the three-point line — which allows a curling drive to the bucket, although it ends in a well-contest jumper.
That’s what Miami does. Erik Spoelstra is great at creating an overload on one side of the floor via decoy actions before feeding the intended scorer with room to work. In fairness, the Celtics have been running similar things themselves throughout the regular and postseason, so it’s nothing that’s exclusive to the Heat — they just do it better than most.
Here, Miami goes into a Floppy Action, designed to get Vincent the rock above the perimeter. Love’s screen generates space along the sideline, which Vincent uses to drive the rock into the middle of the floor and get a bucket.
The issue here is that Boston has all of its defenders clogged into the paint. There’s no one to dig at the drive and pressure the ball. No one to help Smart as he slides up to contest the drive. Resulting in allowing Vincent to ‘get middle.’
“We were prepared. We played harder than them in the first half,” Joe Mazzulla said. “And then they outplayed us for one quarter. We had the right mindset heading into the game. We played harder than they did, and we were prepared. And then, we let go of the rope.”
The problem with letting go of the rope is that when you try to grab it again, you get burned.
This is an example of letting go of the rope. As soon as Smart lets that lob pass go, we should see some Celtics players getting back on defense, even if just to the halfway line, as to limit a transition opportunity.
Instead, everybody stands around, waiting to see if Robert Williams converts into the play. The result is an Adebayo rip-and-run down the full length of the court, with the big man outpacing the Celtics and using his size advantage over Smart to clear the lane.
Let me remind you that this is the same roster that held the Philadelphia 76ers to under 100 points in the final two games of their series — and that was a team with the current MVP (Embiid) and the 2018 MVP (James Harden). So, giving up such easy buckets in transition against a Heat team that is here due to their ability to hustle their assess off is gutwrenching.
Here’s another example of letting go of the rope. Once again, the Heat go into their floppy series, but this time, there is also a weakside pin-down, with the screen receiver then setting a screen for Butler - who is operating as the ball-handler.
From there, Boston’s defense goes to hell. You have Derrick White trailing Butler, Al Horford digging into the paint and recovering out to Adebayo, and very little help from the weak side.
It’s an easy bucket courtesy of some poor communication.
Of course, it wasn’t just Boston’s defense that struggled in the third quarter — their offense played just as big a role - not so much in their procedure, but certainly in execution.
One of my biggest pet peeves with this Celtics team — and it has been the same for multiple years — is how the offense can come to a standstill around the perimeter.
As Jayson Tatum drives the lane, you have Marcus Smart open on the wing with an empty corner, but he doesn’t sink to follow the ball and offer an outlet. Jaylen Brown, on the opposite side of the court, starts the possession in the corner but doesn’t lift or cut.
Instead, Tatum is forced to fight through three different Miami defenders en route to the rim, with his outlets either too far behind or in front of him, making both passes a risky decision on the move.
Boston’s offense works best when everybody is moving and/or cutting, and when the roster is working in unison to spring secondary scorers free courtesy of screening actions. To have a possession with such great spacing and not make use of it by choosing to stand still is dishearteningly annoying.
Ok, I’ve been pretty negative so far, so just for a moment, I want to look at a possession that had a good process and ended in a bucket. Earlier in this newsletter, I mentioned how Spoelstra likes his team to run decoy actions to overload the defense.
Well, here’s an example of Boston doing the same thing. What you’re seeing on the weakside is called a Twirl Action, where one player screens for another, and then the screen receiver curls over to screen for the original screener.
As you can see, the decoy action overloads the defense on the weak side, giving Jaylen Brown the option of trying to beat Adebayo off the dribble or hitting a jumper in his face. Brown chose the latter option. Brown chose violence.
It’s worth remembering that the Celtics did a lot of good things in their game against the Heat, and it was one-quarter of bad play that snatched the game out of their grasp. The Celtics can play much better than what we saw last night. We’ve seen them play much better. And there’s no doubt they will do so again.
However, another loss at home, with a third-quarter struggle — those were an issue during the ‘bubble’ and have been an on-again-off-again struggle in the following two seasons - puts the pressure back onto the Celtics’ shoulders.
Fortunately, the Celtics are a basketball team that plays better with their backs against the wall. In fact, it’s almost like they prefer it that way. Well, heading into game two, their backs will be up against the wall as they look to split their first home stand of the series before heading to Miami.
Personally, I, for one, want no part of the Heat in Miami if Boston is heading there 0-2, and for that reason alone, they need to find that Juice that everybody keeps talking about.
Catch you all tomorrow!
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