Celtics Insider

Forsberg: Familiar issues resurface for Celtics in San Antonio

Celtics Insider

Of all the maddening traits of the 2021-22 Boston Celtics -- and there are many -- the most concerning might be the team’s abysmal fourth-quarter play.

On the heels of Friday’s latest head-slapping loss in San Antonio -- one in which the Celtics rallied out of a 24-point hole only to cough up a 7-point in crunch time -- Boston now owns the NBA’s worst fourth-quarter net rating at minus-13.5. The Celtics’ offense is scoring a meager 98.2 points per 100 possessions in the final frame (second-worst in the NBA) and giving up 111.6 (fifth worst).

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Zoom in on clutch time — final five minutes, score within five points — and the numbers aren’t quite as much of an eyesore. Well, except for the final result. Boston is a mere 4-7 in 11 crunch-time games and its offense routinely devolves to isolation play that too often leaves the team crossing its fingers for much-needed, late-game buckets.

Crunch time on Friday night was a complete disaster. The Celtics were up seven with 3:21 to go thanks in large part to an unexpected jolt from the backup frontcourt combo of Enes Kanter and Grant Williams. Al Horford and Jaylen Brown subbed in for that duo in crunch time — maybe a necessity given the long stints that Williams and Kanter had played to that point — but Boston came unglued at both ends in the aftermath.

When San Antonio’s big guards weren’t seeking out Dennis Schroder and mocking his size, they were fearlessly attacking Horford, who has endured a rough week on the defensive end. The Celtics could never get the basket that might have shut off the momentum faucet with Schroder missing a couple opportunities, Horford fumbling a pocket pass from Marcus Smart and missing a mid-range jumper short, and Jayson Tatum failing to will home a couple of close-range shots over the final two minutes.

 

These are not new issues. The Celtics were 17-26 in clutch games last season and owned the sixth-worst net rating in the league (minus-9.8). The five teams behind them were all in the bottom seven of the league standings. It’s astounding the Celtics even sniffed the play-in game last year given their struggles in close contests.

Failing to finish

Celtics' NBA rank in 4th quarter offense (points per 100 poss.)
29th
Celtics' NBA rank in 4th quarter defense (points per 100 poss. allowed)
26th

Which is why Boston’s struggles this year are a bit sobering. There are undoubtedly contributing factors to this team’s subpar play, not the least of which is health, and you’d like to think that having Robert Williams or Josh Richardson available might have been enough to tilt Friday’s game in Boston’s favor.

But these Celtics are in no position to bank on health. Boston’s injury woes are so prevalent that even the team bus broke down trying to shuttle the Green back from their morning shootaround in San Antonio.

Friday’s game was supposed to be the easy one on the upcoming slate, at least when you consider that all 15 games on Boston’s December schedule are against opponents that had a record of .500 or better entering Friday’s action.

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The wheels on Boston's figurative bus could come off as quick as they did on the team’s actual Texas charter. Unfortunately, it’s not like fourth-quarter woes are the team’s only ailment.

Boston came out impossibly flat on the defensive end considering the national-spotlight butt-kicking the team endured on Wednesday night against the Nets. With all eyes on Ime Udoka returning to San Antonio for a teacher-vs-student matchup with Gregg Popovich, the Celtics unenthusiastically dug themselves a double-digit hole in less than six minutes.

Yes, they rallied. But even the wild swings in this team’s play are concerning. Why is this team capable of looking like a top-10 defense for long stretches but unable to stop attacking guards when it matters most? How can this team play me-first basketball for quarters at a time and forget that its best offense has always started with ball movement?

Udoka hasn’t been able to snap this team out of its most maddening habits from a year ago. He’s been pointed with his criticisms after games, including scolding the Celtics for their isolation ways after the San Antonio loss, but changes have been temporary at best.

A lot of what ails this team reverts back to a single theme: urgency. Why can’t this team set a tone at the start of games? Why do they so often lose their way in the final frame?

Chris Forsberg

So, for the second straight year, the Celtics are faced with a choice. They can ride this still-nauseating roller coaster to mediocrity and put the onus on new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens to decide what changes must be made to a team unwilling to change its ways. Or the players can commit to making some difficult adjustments to their own games that might help eliminate the variance in play.

 

We screamed it coming into the season: The Celtics are not talented enough to just float. Stevens stripped key offensive weapons and put the onus on Tatum and Jaylen Brown to evolve their games with hopes they could carry this team on that end of the floor. The defense has all the potential in the world but has to actually put in the effort to be great each night. Perpetual health woes continue to add a layer of difficulty to everything, particularly for a team with such a thin margin for error.

Udoka got an unpleasant reminder of the challenge in front of him in San Antonio. He has to continue to push his star players. He has to embrace the complementary pieces that are most willing to put in the effort when they are on the floor. He has to figure out how to push the right buttons even when key pieces are not available.

But a lot of what ails this team reverts back to a single theme: urgency. Why can’t this team set a tone at the start of games? Why do they so often lose their way in the final frame?

Alas, this is not a small sample. Changing the coach and changing the complementary pieces has not shaken Boston from its inconsistent ways. The core of this team has to be more willing to work to fix this team’s issues. Because the next set of changes might be a bit more harrowing.