INDIANAPOLIS — The Celtics lost Saturday at Indiana despite hitting eight more 3-pointers than the Pacers and two more field goals overall.
They are making matters difficult for themselves because they aren’t getting to the free throw line, evidenced by their minuscule nine attempts in the 102-101 loss. They were outscored by Indiana, 19-6, from the free throw line, keeping the Pacers in the game and enabling the scenario in which Victor Oladipo could win the game with a go-ahead 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds left.
Credit the All-Star guard with an impressive shot under pressure, but the Celtics lost this game far before the waning moments. They went a ridiculous 27 minutes, 29 seconds without attempting a free throw.
The Pacers attempted 17 free throws in that same span, meaning the Celtics offense has to be even more efficient to stay close. And they are also not getting many easy points — either free throws or layups.
The Celtics hit 19 3-pointers, but the problem was the they hit just 19 of 42 2-pointers. The Celtics are hitting just 46.9 percent this season on 2-pointers and rank 28th in the NBA in free throw attempts.
Boston is relying too heavily on the 3-pointer. The Celtics are flailing on midrange shots and layups, such as Kyrie Irving’s backdoor layup with 11.7 seconds left that could have extended the lead to 4. So they were asking to be on the wrong side of a dramatic ending and Oladipo obliged with his cold-blooded 3-ball.
“I smoked the layup, that’s what it comes down to,” Irving said. “The games have been going like that recently [missing easy shots] until those few shots that are wide open start going down and we feel good about ourselves.”
Two of the Celtics three losses are by 4 combined points, so they’re playing respectable basketball about 11 percent into the season. But they aren’t helping themselves with their reluctance to attack the basket, especially Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward, who played nearly 59 combined minutes Saturday without attempting a free throw.
Bojan Bogdanovic attempted five in a little more than 23 minutes.
“We have to continue to attack the paint; we have to continue to use fakes in there to get to the line,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “What we can’t have happen is get our shots blocked at the rim and let them go the other way in transition, that kills you. If you look at it, our threes aren’t the problem as much as our 2-point shooting and the fact that we’re not strong enough around the rim. Hopefully we can get a little bit better in those regard as a team.
“Our 2-point shooting is making the most concerning thing.”
The reality is the Celtics are the second-worst shooting team in the NBA, only better than the Orlando Magic. And they are 17th in the league in 3-point shooting, meaning the Celtics are failing at the basic, old-fashioned 2-point shot.
In a league where the 3-pointer has become the preferred method of scoring, where 7-footer Aron Baynes has become a legitimate long-range threat, 2-point shots still hold significance. And if the Celtics are going to miss 2-pointers, at least they need to get to the free throw line.
They are doing neither.
“For the majority of the game, I think we got pretty good shots,” Irving said. “Especially in the first quarter, we should have had 50, easy, or 40 at least. Starting off the game missing as many 3s as we did, they kept it pretty close. Just having those moments where we have a few possessions where we’re not as engaged can affect us but it will translate going forward.”
The fact is, without a bona fide post presence, the Celtics are not going to get to the free throw line as much as their opponents. On Saturday, there were several calls they just didn’t get from officials. Including a couple of sequences in the second half where Domantas Sabonis visibly pushed off on strongman Baynes and yet got the foul call when Baynes didn’t give up position.
Irving made reference to Cory Joseph being on his back during that pivotal layup miss in the final seconds while Marcus Morris played 32 minutes, attempted 13 shots and attempted one free throw.
“It’s a tough [situation],” Morris said. “I’m not going to sit up here and badger the referees. I mentioned it to them during the game. [The Pacers] got a couple benefit-of-doubt whistles. It happens man, when you’re at home and your crowd is into the game. We just got to focus on getting into the basket a little more and hopefully it will change for us.”
When asked if the Celtics are hesitating in attacking the basket because they fear not getting calls, Morris said: “Attacking the basket is more to create for everybody else. You want to get the foul but for a guy like me, I’m so under control and getting in there and create and hope to bring the defense. But nine free throws is really unacceptable, especially when they shoot .”
In order to become a great team, the Celtics are either going to have to 1) become more proficient in hitting shots or 2) get to the free throw line more often or 3) both.
Until then they will grind offensively and struggle to win on nights like these when they leave themselves no margin for error on defense.