The Celtics need to make some immediate changes to save their season, and those changes should start Saturday in their rematch with the Knicks.
First-year coach Ime Udoka has not hesitated to criticize his players after difficult losses and he questioned his team’s “mental toughness” following Thursday’s heartbreaking 108-105 loss to New York, a game the Celtics led by 20 in the third quarter and 25 in the first half.
Good teams don’t lose those games, and the Celtics have proven they are not a good team. They have issues scoring in the fourth quarter.
Three weeks ago, the 76ers closed the game on an 18-6 run to edge the Celtics. On Christmas Day, the Milwaukee Bucks denied Boston victory with a game-ending 21-4 run. The Knicks edged Boston with an 18-9 run, with Jayson Tatum the lone Celtic to record a field goal in the last 7:59.
Udoka basically admitted he’s in a quandary. He wants to play Marcus Smart and Dennis Schröder down the stretch for their defensive prowess, but each is a shooting liability. Smart’s 3-point shooting has long been a point of contention in Boston, and Thursday he attempted six in the fourth quarter and 10 overall. Smart with double-digit 3-point attempts is generally not a good sign unless he’s unusually hot.
Schröder hasn’t hit more than two 3-pointers in a game in more than a month.
So with two below-average long-range shooters and center Robert Williams in the closing lineup, the Celtics are turning themselves into a predictable and pedestrian offense. Opposing teams do not respect Smart or Schröder’s 3-point shooting to the point where they are going to lay off Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. Unless they start hitting those shots, the Celtics are going to struggle to score.
Udoka mentioned Grant Williams and Josh Richardson as the lone shooters having better-than average seasons. Neither played in the fourth quarter Thursday.
Tatum scored 13 of the Celtics’ 21 points in the final period. Smart scored 8. Brown did not score and attempted one shot in eight minutes and 12 seconds. That’s on Udoka. You can’t have Brown, who scored 80 points over the previous two games, going scoreless in the final period while standing in the corner to make space for Tatum to take on three or four defenders.
The Celtics either need to acquire another premium shooter or play Richardson or Grant Williams more in the closing lineup. Udoka is banking that Schröder or Smart will hit shots. Schröder is streaky and has carried the Celtics at times, but he misses a lot of makeable shots and commits silly turnovers.
As much as Smart works on his 3-point shot, he cannot be depended on to hit open threes. The Celtics should know this. He’s in his eighth season.
The NBA is predicated on creating mismatches, getting good shooters open shots or spreading the floor with shooters skilled enough for defenses to respect. Defenses would much rather double or triple Tatum and take their chances leaving leave Smart or Schröder open. One or two good games from that duo wouldn’t change that.
After Portland guard Andre Miller scored 52 points in a January 2010 win over Denver, Doc Rivers asked me, “Do you know how they’re going to guard Miller the next game? The same way they guarded him before.” That means defenses rely on long-term history, and history shows you don’t leave Tatum or Brown single-covered to defend Schröder or Smart in the fourth quarter.
Udoka has to create more scoring opportunities for Brown, take pressure off Tatum, and rely less on Smart and Schröder to score in the clutch. Tatum worked feverishly to keep the Celtics in the game Thursday and deserved a better fate. Brown can’t be happy with one shot in the fourth quarter. He’s too good for that. Smart attempted six 3-pointers in the final period.
“When they do take it out of Jayson’s and Jaylen’s hands, those guys have to be playmakers,” Udoka said of Schröder and Smart. “They’re our point guards for a reason. If they have the shot there, we (got the ball) to the (weak) side a few times and (Smart) knocked a few down. I know there was one he took where Jaylen was open in the high quadrant that he might have missed him there but he got quality looks playing off Jayson and that’s what we’re asking him to do.
“We have confidence in those guys that are in the game defensively, of course. Offensively you pick your player. Nobody has had their career shooting year other than maybe Josh or Grant. Across the board, there’s going to be a lack of shooting on the court sometimes.”
Paging Brad Stevens. Get the Celtics another shooter. Udoka is saying he doesn’t have enough shooting to make things easier for Tatum and Brown. So he is banking on Schröder and Smart to make open shots or get enough defensive stops to prevail.
Tatum and Brown also have to be better down the stretch. Brown is shooting 15.6 percent (5 for 32) from the 3-point line in the fourth quarter this season but he still needs to be utilized in crunch time more when Tatum is on the floor.
The Celtics’ problems are complex, especially with their roster shortcomings. It’s on Udoka and Stevens to upgrade key spots on the roster and put their stars in position to thrive. So far, Udoka and Stevens haven’t fulfilled those expectations.