For a team that depends so heavily on the 3-point shot, the Celtics’ best players shooting a career worst from the beyond the arc is a major issue.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka has hoped Jayson Tatum would return to form, but it hasn’t happened. He was 0 for 7 in Wednesday’s 111-102 loss to the Charlotte Hornets as his percentage on long-range shots plummeted to 31.6 percent.
Before this season, Tatum made 39.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, including two seasons above 40 percent.
Tatum scored only 12 points as the Celtics lost to a conference peer that appears more cohesive and talented. Perhaps if some of those long-range shots fall, the Celtics prevail, but they were clanging threes all evening, most of them open looks.
Tatum was the catalyst. He has been deadly on open looks from the 3-point line, and the Hornets zone offered Tatum several clean opportunities. He missed them all.
It’s reached a level of frustration. Udoka is not only waiting for Tatum but most of his roster to hit open shots, which could mean the difference between a Celtics home playoff round and the play-in tournament berth.
It wasn’t that Charlotte was appreciably better, but more clutch. The Hornets hit their open looks. What’s more, they made 11 threes in the second half, five by former Celtic Terry Rozier, whose mission is to remind the organization it chose Kemba Walker over him three years ago.
Tatum and Jaylen Brown were a combined 1-for-10 shooting on 3-pointers in the second half. Tatum, plagued by foul trouble, scored 4 points after halftime. But this issue goes far beyond one night. Tatum is 17-for-64 shooting since returning from COVID-19 protocol and prior to that he’s had games going 2 of 15, 1 of 8, 1 of 8, 1 of 9, 1 of 9, 2 for 11 and 3 of 13.
“Our team in general and certain players, it’s been a night-to-night thing,” Udoka said of the inconsistent shooting. “I don’t think Jayson is a guy you really have to worry about thinking about (his slump). He comes down and takes the right shots. I like when he’s more aggressive getting downhill (to the basket) if the shot is not falling.
“He’s 0 for 7 from three and probably five or six of them were wide open so you’re not gonna pass those up regardless if the ball is going in or not.”
Against the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, Tatum countered a 0-for-4 shooting night on threes by attacking the basket. The result was 27 points and 11 free throw attempts.
On Wednesday, Tatum was constantly flustered by a lack of calls and then became tentative when he got into foul trouble. He had a small window in the fourth quarter when he was playing with four fouls and had a chance to help the Celtics rally but he became tentative and was a nonfactor. Tatum scored 2 points in the final quarter.
According to NBA.com, Tatum entered Wednesday 78 for 240 (32.5 percent) on 3-pointers where a defender is not within 4 feet. He was 40 percent in those situations last season, including 52.4 when a defender wasn’t within 6 feet. He’s shooting 34.2 in that situation this season.
Five of his seven looks Wednesday were considered open or lightly contested.
“We look at shot quality and we look at all the numbers of what he’s done in his career until now and they’re as good or better shots (this year),” Udoka said. “If he’s playing off of guys and they’re getting him wide-open looks or if he’s creating his own shots, we expect them to go down eventually. It’s not just Jayson, it’s across the board. We’d have some difficult outcomes if he shot the ball better but just stay with it, stay confident and continue to make the right play.”
Udoka is in the same situation with Tatum as he is with most of his roster. He just has to hope they improve their shooting as the season progresses because several key shooters — Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford — are below their career averages beyond the arc.
Without a dominating post presence, the Celtics rely on the 3-point shot and can be a factor in the Eastern Conference if those shots are falling. But the Celtics are 23rd in the NBA in 3-point percentage, so if you’re looking for a reason why they are .500, there it is.
A team that attempts 36 3-pointers per game only makes 12. Perhaps the best hope — or maybe only hope — for the Celtics to resuscitate their season is to improve their perimeter shooting. That means either hoping players return to form or acquiring better shooters.
Team president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has less than a month to determine whether getting more shooting is worth the likely hefty price. But he and Udoka could not have expected Tatum to take such a dip after establishing himself as a well above average 3-point shooter throughout his career.
Tatum likely will have to solve his shooting issues for the Celtics to have any chance to reach the postseason.