ATLANTA — The Celtics coaching staff keeps track of a metric it calls “expected points.” These are created when everything that preceded a shot goes according to plan, creating an ideal attempt.
But expected points do not actually show up on the scoreboard, and the shot ultimately needs to go in. And this season, that part has been a problem for the Celtics.
“Expected points are very high with the looks we’re getting,” coach Ime Udoka said. “When you don’t knock those down, it starts to mentally wear on you a little bit.”
That was apparent against the Hawks on Wednesday night, when plenty of good opportunities ultimately proved unfulfilling in the Celtics’ 110-99 loss. The Celtics made just 11 of 41 3-pointers and could never seem to hit them when they were needed most.
On plays in which the closest defender was at least 6 feet away from the shooter this season, the Celtics have made just 38.8 percent of their shots overall and 32.8 percent of their 3-pointers, ranking 26th and 27th in the NBA.
“Not where we want to be,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “We wish we could make some more shots, from the top down, but just trying to play with a little more pace more often than not, obviously.”
Boston’s defense has generally been excellent this season and entered this game as the NBA’s best over the last two weeks. But Udoka is concerned about the extreme level of pressure being put on the defense by the crummy offense.
When 3-pointers carom off the rim they can ignite fast breaks and allow teams to strike before an opposing defense can settle. The Celtics have held up so far despite their sordid shooting, but this game showed that there may be limits. The Hawks shot 50.6 percent from the field, dropping the Celtics to 0-4 this season when an opponent tops the 50 percent mark.
It did not help that Boston was without key defenders Jaylen Brown (hamstring) and Robert Williams (knee), but Udoka made it clear that the missed shots on the other end were the more pressing issue.
“It’s going to put a tremendous amount of stress on your defense to be perfect when you don’t make shots, and sometimes that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “Several wide-open looks, shooting 11 for 42 from three, it puts stress on your defense to be perfect when you’re not making those shots.”
It was encouraging for the Celtics that Tatum may have snapped out of his shooting slump, at least. The All-Star made 12 of 22 shots and had 34 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists.
But as he began to catch fire early in the fourth quarter, the Celtics were unable to find ways to keep him going. Tatum drilled a step-back 3-pointer with 8:42 left but took just one more shot for the rest of the game.
“Obviously, I draw a lot of attention,” Tatum said. “They don’t really like to help off me or switch. So sometimes when you’ve got that much attention, be a good screener, look to play-make a little bit more. But sometimes, it happens like that.”
Tatum drawing extra attention from a defense is nothing new, of course, and it is especially noticeable while Brown is out. Udoka said that even when Tatum is in rhythm, like he was on Wednesday night, there is only so much he can do when defenses begin to swarm him even more excessively.
The Celtics could have tried to get him more involved with post-ups, but that would just invite more traps and double teams.
“He’s doing the right thing,” Udoka said. “We had countless amounts of wide-open threes in the fourth quarter that could have obviously changed the tide, so he’s being unselfish and doing what’s asked of him. We could try to get him balls in other spots, on the post perhaps, but we liked what he was doing in pick-and-roll, off-ball actions.”
Grant Williams added 18 points and six rebounds for Boston, but the Celtics received little help from their bench. Josh Richardson had 11 points and the rest of the reserves were held scoreless, combining to go 0 for 9 from the field.
John Collins had 20 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Hawks, who led by at least 8 points for the game’s final 16 minutes and never really seemed in danger during that time. Atlanta won despite a relatively quiet night from star guard Trae Young, who made 4 of 12 shots and scored 18 points.
The Celtics had a chance to push above .500 for the first time this season. Instead, they slipped back below it, and now LeBron James could be on track to return for the Lakers at TD Garden on Friday after missing more than two weeks because of an abdominal strain.