A three-game losing streak in the doldrums of January is typically no reason to slam your panic button. But that doesn’t make the Boston Celtics’ recent three-game skid any less annoying.
The Celtics are the best team in basketball when healthy and engaged. They have been neither this week. Now some of the East rivals are gaining ground. But it’s the lulls in this team’s intensity that are most maddening. Boston's inability to keep its foot on the accelerator has left the Celtics scrambling at the finish line of games and it burned them twice this week.
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We can obsess about timeout usage and missed free throws but those are simply magnified in the moment. Let's take a step back and ponder a few of the bigger-picture implications here:
Do you miss Marcus Smart yet?
The Celtics' offensive rating over this three-game losing streak is a woeful 104.7. That’s nearly 12 points below their season average and 4.2 points lower than Charlotte’s league-worst mark for the season.
For all the consternation about Smart and his occasional trigger-happy ways beyond the 3-point arc, the last three games without him have been a firm reminder of how much smoother the offense runs when he’s around. Smart is undeniably the best quarterback in New England (and doesn’t need a fangled offensive coordinator to thrive).
The Celtics own an offensive rating of 118 in Smart’s 1,331 minutes of floor time this season. That number dips to 113.1 in the 1,099 minutes without him. Only the absence of Jayson Tatum causes a bigger dip in performance.
Most notably, Boston’s assist rate morphs from a team-best 65.3 with Smart on the court to a team-worst 60.8 without him. Interim coach Joe Mazzulla has lamented the team’s issues with both pace and spacing this week, two things that Smart tends to improve.
The Celtics have a surplus of guard depth but Smart is simply the best conductor of this symphony. Jaylen Brown gets the necessary touches when Smart is around. Tatum gets easier looks. Plus, there is the Smart chaos factor in crunch-time moments when he tends to be at his very best.
The last three games are a reminder not to take Smart’s presence for granted.
Wingin' it at the trade deadline?
While many obsess about Boston needing another pure big before the trade deadline -- and an ability to better pace Al Horford and Robert Williams III would undeniably be a luxury -- we keep coming back to the benefits of having another trustworthy wing.
The Celtics are a hot mess when Tatum is off the court this season. Boston’s net rating without Tatum is minus-2.4. No other player is even close to the negative. To state it simpler: Boston has outscored opponents by 318 points with Tatum on the court this season, and has been outscored by 43 points without him.
When the Celtics are whole, the need for an extra body is slightly diminished. Payton Pritchard has gotten extended opportunity recently and the Celtics can typically survive playing small.
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But as Sam Hauser’s shooting slump persists, it’s clear the Celtics could benefit from a more reliable presence at the wing, even if just to help the team tread water when Tatum is on the bench. Whether it’s defense-first player or just someone who can more consistently knock down open shots in spot minutes, we’ll continue to yearn for a wing over a big to shore up this roster.
Hauser has a bright future and any acquired wing might not even get minutes in the postseason. But it simply seems like more of a trouble spot than filling center minutes (outside of back-to-back play).
Clutching their pearls
Tatum’s rough week in late-game moments will surely lead to some over-caffeinated chatter about the presence of a clutch gene.
Tatum is 6-for-16 shooting (37.5 percent) in the final minute of a one-possession game this season. The Celtics are still plus-17 over his near 16 minutes in that scenario. Here’s how he stacks up against the other top high-volume shooters in the NBA this season in the same clutch scenario:
The number that catches our eye is the free-throw attempts. For all his improvements at getting to the line this season, Tatum could do a better job getting there in crunch-time moments. He too often settles for perimeter shots — even if it looked like that Paul Pierce-esque pull-up might fall at the end of regulation against the Knicks.
Being a little better in those moments is one of the final growth areas as Tatum gets comfortable in the top tier of NBA players.