PHOENIX — Jayson Tatum was going to make sure official Matt Myers heard his thoughts on the non-call on a 3-point attempt in the third quarter. Tatum felt Frank Kaminsky made contact on his release.
Tatum argued as he jogged down the floor, earning a technical foul. Several minutes later, Kemba Walker attacked the basket, felt he was bumped and again no call. He also drew a technical.
The Celtics didn’t lose Sunday to the Phoenix Suns because of the officiating. They lost, 100-91, because they couldn’t make 2-point shots and generate easy points, so they were angry at those factors. Tatum is seventh in the NBA in scoring but 44th in free throw attempts.
Teammate Jaylen Brown, who missed his second consecutive game with knee soreness, is 12th in scoring and 32nd in free throw attempts. It’s been an issue for years. The Celtics aren’t effective and can’t overcome elite teams if they aren’t shooting the 3-pointer well.
They almost saved themselves with the 3-pointer Sunday. But the inability to score easy points is becoming more and more of an issue. The Celtics were 13 of 37 on shots in the paint and 16 of 49 on 2-point shots. Two-point shots are generally supposed to be easier to convert than 3s. But the Celtics are making the game too difficult. And one of the issues is their inability to play through contact or expect the foul.
Walker, who had one of his worst games as a Celtic in missing 16 of 20 shots, spent Sunday afternoon trying to sell contact on several of his shots and getting just one call all game, and that was challenged by Phoenix coach Monty Williams (though unsuccessfully).
Walker began the game by launching a rushed 3-pointer he believed would result in three free throws because of the contact. Instead, it was an airball. Walker is struggling from the field so he’s trying to get himself started by drawing fouls, hitting free throws and getting into a rhythm.
But that plan has failed miserably and instead of putting his full concentration on making shots, Walker is focusing his attention on drawing fouls. Walker is averaging a career low 2.7 free throws per game and has attempted no more than five in his nine appearances.
It’s time for Walker to get accustomed to a new reality: he’s not going to draw the fouls he did in the past, during his Charlotte days, where he regularly averaged more than five attempts per game. It’s affecting Walker’s confidence and psyche and it’s apparent.
“You know what? I let myself get a little too frustrated,” Walker said. “I just can’t have that. Like I always say, these guys, they look to me to be that positive energy. I wasn’t that today. It was pretty frustrating. But if it’s not a call, it’s not a foul and I gotta realize that. I just gotta be better. I gotta find a way to either make a play at the rim or make a play for my teammates.”
Walker is saying the right things but needs to back it up with more consistency. He went 1-for-12 shooting in the Jan. 30 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, including missing a potential game-winning jumper. He started Sunday 2 of 16 before a brief warm streak with two 3-pointers. But he hasn’t done enough or performed well enough to uplift the Celtics.
Tatum attempted four free throws Sunday and just two in the second half. He can usually compensate for his lack of free throw shooting with his shot making but he missed 14 of 22 shots, including 10 from 2-point range. That lack of efficiency along with a lack of free throws will spell doom for the Celtics offense.
“Getting (defensive) stops, getting out in transition when we’re not really knocking down shots like we normally do,” Tatum said. “Me and the ref disagreed on something but ultimately they’re not going to change the call and I gotta figure more ways to show that I’m getting fouled. It’s a learning process, for sure.”'
Without a dominant center, the Celtics lack post presence, a Joel Embiid type who is either going to score or get fouled and score those easy points. So the Celtics are going to have to 1) stop complaining about calls if it doesn’t result in more free throws and 2) stop expecting calls when your team doesn’t consistently attack the paint.
The Celtics are paying the price for their lack of aggression at the rim and lack of a space-eating scoring center. It’s time to face reality. Walker is not going to get the Charlotte calls, especially when he’s struggling so mightily from the field.
Tatum and Brown appear to be too young to attract those calls that established stars get. So the Celtics need to deal with that, move forward and figure out to how to be a more offensively efficient team. Walker did not make a 2-point shot Sunday. That’s more of an issue that not getting to the free throw line. The Celtics have to flourish at what they do well and getting to the line isn’t one of those skills, so deal with it and make more shots.