What separates good teams from great teams is the ability to finish, the skill of putting away teams with precise late-game execution offensively and defensively. The Celtics struggled with closing games last season, the most egregious being Game 4 of the NBA Finals when they turned a potential stronghold on the championship into a tied series they would eventually lose.
That was the ultimate lesson for a team that never quite found fourth-quarter consistency even when they were streaking in the second half of the season. This edition of the Celtics is finishing games off, playing better ball than competent opponents, making plays in the final minutes to erase any suspense.
After watching the Denver Nuggets slice an 18-point deficit to six after the third quarter Friday night, the Celtics dominated the final period in a 131-112 win, stifling the Nuggets defensively while extending the lead with timely baskets.
Al Horford and Jayson Tatum combined for 22 points on 7-for-9 shooting as the Celtics shot 60 percent in the final period. Their defense also left the Nuggets scrambling to score, rushing shots and meeting multiple defenders at the rim. The result was 28.6 shooting by Denver and no hope for a rally as the fourth quarter progressed.
For the Celtics to become an elite team they have to finish games better. So far this season, they are shooting nearly 49 percent in the final period and 37.1 percent from the 3-point line, compared with 44.4 and 34.1 last season.
Defensively, the Celtics are holding opponents to 32.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc — 3-pointers are the fastest way to rally — and fewer numbers in offensive rebounding, free throw attempts, and points scored.
What’s more, in a 9-6 November last season the Celtics shot just 27.6 percent from the 3-point line and scored 23.8 points. In other words, they were scraping by with defense. That is no longer the case. Both the defense and offense have been efficient down the stretch.
“I think coach [Joe Mazzulla] has done a good job of getting us organized,” Horford said. “Defensively, I felt like we would lock in but on the offensive end I feel like he’s doing a really good job of getting us where we need to be. We’re able to run a cleaner offense and when we get to those positions, Jayson and Jaylen [Brown] continue to make the right reads, the right plays. I think that’s the biggest improvement.”
The Celtics stressed the importance of getting off to a good start during training camp. They wanted to close out games, pick up quality victories, and become a more efficient team when it counted. Instead of relying on hero ball, the Celtics wanted more passing, more open 3-pointers, and more attacks on the rim.
The league’s No. 1 offense is slowly being gained on by an improving defense. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic couldn’t carry his team in the final period Friday night, making just two field goals and finishing with a minus-12 in 10 minutes.
Coincidentally, the Celtics’ two overtime losses to Cleveland this season were a byproduct of lack of execution down the stretch or poor decision making. The Celtics are cutting down on those mistakes.
“Overall, our offense is just better,” Tatum said. “Our attention to detail in watching film, managing those late-game offensive situations, and being intentional about what we want to do and who [what opposing defender] we’re trying to put into action. It may look random but we’re talking about it and know what we’re trying to do instead of kind of just pass and you’re turn, my turn type of thing.”
Tatum is 100 percent correct. The Celtics were too predictable in fourth quarters last season. Tatum and Brown took their turns trying to score or Marcus Smart would heave a hero-ball 3-pointer in crucial moments. Sometimes those shots went down and the Celtics survived. Other times they didn’t and the Celtics wasted a lead.
“Just learning from your mistakes, been there one too many times last season,” Tatum said. “Knowing what not to do. Teams will go on runs [but] how to respond, how to combat that. We’re confident in that we can go out there and do it.”
The Celtics have now won five consecutive games and are second in the Eastern Conference behind the Milwaukee Bucks. They did not want to make matters more difficult for themselves in the second half of the season by struggling in the first half. They have met those expectations and now have victories over Miami, Philadelphia, Memphis, and Denver because they were able to make those critical plays down the stretch.
Offensively, they aren’t dribbling the shot clock down to 10 and then deciding to call a play or haphazardly trying to get an open shot. They seem more organized and confident, more assured they can score and also get defensive stops.
“I think it’s the guys understanding what we’re trying to do,” Mazzulla said. “The organization with our game management, the shots that we’re trying to get, the spacing that we’re trying to have, and the matchups we’re trying to attack. Our guys are really smart and they do a great job putting themselves in situations to make the right play and attack the right matchup.”
Closing out games in the fourth quarter is a learned skill that has taken the Celtics a few years to acquire. It’s apparent they turned that bitter defeat in Game 4 into a positive, realizing being a championship-caliber team requires meticulous execution when the game is in the balance.