SAN ANTONIO — So, right away, let’s throw out the theory that the Celtics are a better team without Isaiah Thomas. That “the ball moves better and the Celtics are tougher to game plan for” mumbo jumbo should be properly discarded along with those fruitcakes you’ll receive from co-workers at the company Christmas gift exchange.
The Celtics need a closer, and Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was a perfect example. They outplayed the Thunder for about 44 minutes and needed a couple of buckets or free throws to close out the win, but who was the Celtics’ leading free throw shooter in the fourth quarter? Backup power forward Kelly Olynyk.
The Celtics attempted their last free throw of the game with 8:45 left. The Thunder attempted nine in that last 8:45, including six by Russell Westbrook. The one thing that ball-dominant players such as Westbrook and Thomas tend to do is get to the free throw line, so they score easy points.
The Celtics were forced to work feverishly for their points in the fourth quarter, and that doesn’t occur with Thomas on the floor. The reason this team has been able to close out games over the past two years was Thomas’s ability to get to the free throw line.
But just because Thomas has been out with a strained groin for the past week doesn’t mean the current players are exempt from blame for losing three times in the past four games.
In the offseason, the Celtics signed a maximum salary player to carry them through such adverse circumstances. And while Al Horford’s numbers have been impressive — he is a better 3-point shooter, averaging a career-high in assists and blocked shots — he needs to become more of a closer, which is difficult because it isn’t in his nature.
For example, Horford has attempted just 29 free throws this season, or 2.1 per game. That’s pesos compared with Thomas, who can attempt 29 in a pair of games. What’s more, in 385 career games, Thomas has attempted 1,956 free throws (5.1 per game), while Horford has attempted 1,497 in 592 career games (2.5 per game).
This team honestly needs more from Horford, and while he is admittedly uncomfortable playing outside his comfort zone — meaning he enjoys being unselfish, getting teammates involved, and making the right basketball play — in this NBA, ball hogs get it done down the stretch. So without Thomas, and sometimes even with Thomas, Horford needs to be more selfish.
Horford needed to be more assertive in the waning moments against Oklahoma City because the Celtics were looking for somebody to deliver. Avery Bradley tried with his customary perimeter shots but fell short. Marcus Smart is never shy to take a shot or to take charge, but he isn’t an elite finisher, and perhaps his reputation for flopping prevents him from getting calls he should probably get.
So on Sunday night it was up to Horford, and on three key possessions, he couldn’t produce. With the game tied at 94 and 1:06 left, he tried challenging the bigger Steven Adams with a right-handed hook that was promptly blocked.
On the next possession, after Westbrook missed a jumper, Horford thought he saw Terry Rozier cutting toward the basket, but Rozier darted away, and Horford’s pass bounced harmlessly out of bounds. Finally, the Celtics big man missed a fadeaway jumper with 7.9 seconds left and Boston trailing by 4.
Fourteen of Horford’s 17 shots Sunday were attempted before the fourth quarter. He went scoreless in the final period, and that is a product of his selflessness and the Celtics not emphasizing him in those critical moments.
The Celtics need the best Horford has ever been. It’s been a difficult season for him, having missed nine games with a concussion that was more difficult to overcome than anyone would have imagined. But with Thomas recovering from his injury and the Celtics lacking a dependable, reliable scorer, Horford has to extend beyond himself, perhaps even after Thomas returns.
“It just comes down to us executing and scoring the ball, really,” Horford said of the late-game struggles. “We’ve had some bad possessions there. I had to improvise there [on the Adams block] at the end, and it was a good block by him. We probably got away from some of the stuff that was working for us early in the game. The stuff that we were doing, we probably didn’t execute it as well as we should have. That came back to bite us.”
There are no simple answers, but the Celtics need to address this issue. The schedule for the rest of the month is difficult — San Antonio, Charlotte, two games with Memphis, at Indiana, a rematch with Oklahoma City, the New York Knicks — and the Celtics could be below .500 by the new year and in the hairy position of fighting for a playoff spot.
They need the best of Horford. They need him to be more than a facilitator and 3-point shooter. They need him to score buckets down the stretch, win big games, and give Thomas some assistance to make the Celtics a more difficult and formidable opponent.
They were not all that difficult to defend on Sunday night, partly because Thomas wasn’t there and partly because no one emerged to assume the role of closer.