One of the primary reasons the Celtics were drubbed Monday at Madison Square Garden was the season-worst 3-point shooting performance.
Boston missed 33 of 42 attempts, hitting just 21.4 percent, killing any opportunity to rally against the Knicks, who coupled points in the paint with timely 3-point shooting to pull away for the 109-94 win.
It was one of the Celtics’ worst offensive performances of the season, and the result was indicative of their identity. Boston is a 3-point shooting team, unbeatable when it shoots 39.5 percent or higher, average when shooting below that mark.
The Celtics are 26-0 when they have hit that percentage or higher and 18-18 when they don’t. When they make less than 30 percent of their threes, they are 5-7, so Monday’s result was no surprise.
The question is whether they should stick with this 3-point personality when it’s obviously been so successful; or perhaps shift the emphasis to inside shots on nights when the threes aren’t falling. The Celtics made 66.7 percent of their 2-pointers Monday — they were stellar inside the arc, but they insisted on chucking 3-pointers it cost them a chance to win.
“I thought we executed pretty well,” said coach Joe Mazzulla after the loss. “I thought we had a lot of really good looks, and when those don’t fall it just puts more pressure on you. It puts more pressure on your defense. You know, you’re constantly in that 5-to-10-point range when you’re down so we got [the deficit] to 9 and I thought we got three wide-open threes from really good shooters, and we missed them.”
Jayson Tatum’s struggles can help explain the defeat. After hitting 10 3-pointers in the Feb. 19 All-Star Game, he made only one against New York, forcing others to carry more of an offensive load, especially without Jaylen Brown.
Marcus Smart will always willfully shoot when called upon but he wasn’t capable of keeping the Celtics within single digits and neither were Al Horford or Derrick White. Mazzulla didn’t use Robert Williams as a low-post or rim threat as much as he could and the big man attempted four shots in 29 minutes.
If the Celtics are unable to make 3-pointers, they should opt for more twos, specifically when they are hitting nearly 70 percent of those shots.
“I know we got more shots than they did; I know we got more offensive rebounds,” Mazzulla said. “They beat us at the free throw line. I don’t know what the adjustment would be if we get more shots and get more offensive rebounds. We just go 9 for 42 from three.”
It’s OK for the Celtics to be reliant on the 3-pointer when they’re chasing games. And they have so many good shooters — Tatum, Brown, White, Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams — that nights like Monday are rare, and even if they are abysmal from deep, they can still give them a chance to win with defense and 2-point shots.
Another issue Monday was foul trouble. The Knicks attempted 34 free throws to the Celtics’ 14, and coupled with the lack of 3-point shooting, Boston never stood a chance offensively. A strength of the Celtics offense is not needing a high volume of free throws to win. Boston is 6-0 in the six games it has attempted 10 or fewer free throws this season.
In those six games, the Celtics shot 45.6 percent from the 3-point line. Time and again, 3-point shooting has saved them and it’s been good enough for the NBA’s second-best record.
The Celtics are second in the league in triples made and eighth in 3-point shooting percentage. In other words, they win because they are hitting from deep.
“If their No. 1 job is protecting the paint,” Mazzulla said of the Knicks, “what’s the [point of] running into the paint? Can you get easy [shots] in the shot clock early off misses? But when you’re in the halfcourt setting because of our fouling, because they made shots, you have to take the [threes] that are there. A huge strength of ours is the ability to generate a really good open look. I feel like every three we took was by a good shooter and a good shot. I think you have to encourage those.
“We went on that [second-half] run in Philly because we took open threes and they went in. We were able to stretch the game out. The fact that [Monday] stayed at an 8- to 11-point game for a lot of it meant we couldn’t get over the hump with our shot execution.”
The Celtics have the ability to win a championship with the offensive arsenal they have now, but it wouldn’t hurt to put more emphasis on getting easier baskets, especially from Robert Williams and with Tatum and Brown attacking the rim.
Monday was one of those rare games where the Celtics couldn’t make 3-pointers, couldn’t get consistent defensive, stops and then fouled too often. They can’t assume this won’t happen again and need to be better prepared for these setbacks when the games carry more significance.
Even if their resume has proven they can be an elite team relying on the 3-pointer.