There was one first-half possession on which Marcus Smart dribbled the ball and his four teammates occupied four spots on the floor and just stared back at him. Smart implored his teammates to move and they didn’t, and he eventually forced a shot that missed.
It was a laborious night for the Celtics offense, in a chance to take control of the NBA Finals, they were stagnant and unimaginative. And finally, when they needed a couple of buckets to seize Game 4, they malfunctioned completely, unable to get a clean shot against a determined defense.
The Celtics stars fizzled. In one late possession, Smart, as he always does, was the only Celtic brave enough to take the big shot. He missed both 3-pointers. Boston scored 6 points in the final 7 minutes, 32 seconds.
The 107-97 loss was more than Stephen Curry’s 43 points or Andrew Wiggins’ key offensive rebounds, it was a Celtics offense that panicked in the critical moments. They had no idea how to score in the final half of the fourth quarter, and they looked completely defeated.
Meanwhile, the Warriors used their championship mettle to hit clutch shots, snatching the game away from their less experienced opponents and taking back home-court advantage.
The Celtics still have a chance to win this series, but it will require a win in San Francisco and considerably better offense than Friday night at TD Garden. Coach Ime Udoka will have to devise a way to get Jayson Tatum easier baskets because once again he struggled when it counted, going 2 for 9 in the second half and 1 for 5 in the final quarter.
He tried attacking the rim to get fouls, but got no calls. He tried launching contested threes and they rimmed out. He turned himself into a predictable scorer because he settled. He hasn’t gotten his desired foul calls all series, but yet he keeps looking to be bailed out.
“When I do have space, I’m open, I got to take the shot,” said Tatum, who missed 15 of his 23 shots and committed six turnovers. “Obviously, any time I hold it too long, they load up and things like that. I think just quick decisions, don’t turn down any open looks, any daylight that I have, just continue to try to make the right pass. I had too many turnovers tonight. I think just make quicker decisions.”
Udoka had a stronger suggestion. Tatum needs to take what the defense is giving him, similar to the Milwaukee series. There’s nothing wrong with a mid-range shot.
“Yeah, what I would say is don’t be opposed to taking twos,” Udoka said. “Some pull-up jumpers, some of those things, instead of going all the way to the rim. It doesn’t have to be either/or as far as that.
“We talked about the balance, how much we rely on him to score and get other guys involved. Sometimes that balance leads to taking some shots or over-penetrating when he has a clean pull-up or two. Nothing wrong with the floater, mid-range pull-up to get yourself going, especially when the crowd is sitting there at the rim.”
Something has to change quickly or the Celtics will waste this precious opportunity against a team they have proved they can beat. Udoka needs to spend the next 48 hours making considerable adjustments to free Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The Celtics were 2 for 12 shooting with two turnovers in the final 7 minutes, 32 seconds. Eight of those shots were 3-point attempts. The Celtics went for home runs and instead struck out.
“We had plenty of opportunities, obviously,” Udoka said. Every time we got a 5-, 6-point lead, it felt like we made some poor decisions, whether it was rushed shots in traffic or, to your point, standing around and looking at each other a little bit there.”
The Celtics thrive on picking mismatches but they couldn’t find once to exploit. Tatum couldn’t successfully score on Golden State reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica, who used his length to bother Tatum and get him discouraged.
“Not sure if we tried to pick on mismatches too much,” Udoka said. “Got stalled out a little bit. When we did run off-ball actions and got some movement, we got some really good looks. We wanted to get the ball up quick and get into an offense. If we don’t have anything, still make them work the clock. A lot of times it felt like we were standing around, unsure of who we were trying to go after, and it led to those stalled-down possessions.”
The offense never got into any consistent flow, even when the Celtics led by as many as 7 points. In the last six minutes, the offense needed to execute precisely, they passed around the perimeter trying to find a weakness in the defense, and when they didn’t they forced a 3-pointer.
“Like Derrick [White] said, we got ball-watching the guy with the ball instead of just moving like we’ve been doing,” Smart said. “The ball handler, it’s kind of hard, because you’re trying to tell everybody to do something while making sure you still see the play with the guy in front of you.
“For us, we just got to move,” plain and simple. If the ball gets stuck and you see it, go screen somebody. But we have to move. We cannot let the ball get stagnant and let them load up on us.”
The Celtics paid for their stagnation Friday and now have to counter offensively with more creative schemes than they’ve displayed so far.