LOS ANGELES – The Celtics are past the point of being encouraged by close road losses against elite teams. They should have won Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, playing in front of a Kobe Bryant jersey-clad Bill Russell.
After their 114-112 defeat, the Celtics had a right to be ornery with the officiating, which was awful in the final two minutes with some pivotal and confusing calls. Marcus Smart didn’t want to talk after the game.
And when it was mentioned that he would like to keep his money and avoid a fine, he said, “exactly.”
Let’s shift the focus from the convenient excuse of poor officiating and center on the Celtics’ lack of late-game execution, how they can combat the increasing number of double-teams against Jayson Tatum and how Gordon Hayward can get going in big games.
The first example was perhaps the most distressing. Jaylen Brown swished a corner 3-pointer with 1:17 left for a 110-108 lead and the Celtics managed two free throws and one shot attempt the rest of the way. The Lakers ramped up their defense but the key play occurred with 51.8 seconds left and the Celtics up 2.
Hayward rebounded an Anthony Davis miss then forged down the floor, using his body to shield a defender from blocking his layup attempt. Hayward missed the layup, the second bunny of the half he missed in what was a frustrating afternoon.
Hayward scored 29 points Friday at Minnesota but managed 10 on Sunday. Tatum scored 41 and looked again like the best player on the floor despite the presence of Davis and LeBron James. So the Lakers responded by trapping Tatum, who was forced to pass the ball before he could get into his offensive move.
If opposing teams are going to double Tatum, Hayward has to flourish. Many of his 10 missed shots Sunday were open. He missed all five of his 3-point attempts, two point-blank layups and three midrange jumpers.
Honestly, opponents are deciding which Celtic they trust the least to score with the open jumper and so far, it’s Hayward. If Hayward at least has an average game the Celtics win, even without Kemba Walker.
“It’s tough when you have those big nights, you have to come through for him,” Hayward said. “We’re going to have to be better playing off the double and learning how to attack that, especially when he’s rolling. That’s on all of us. We had our shots. We had our opportunities. We knew they were going to make plays.
“If I make some shots I normally make. I smoked a couple of bunnies, we win the game pretty easy.”
The best way to view this game is through a long-range lens. It was a tough road loss against one of the league’s best teams. The Lakers were at full strength with a healthy Davis and James, unlike the first meeting last month.
What hurt the Celtics eventually is the lack of bench scoring, which remains a weakness. The leading scorer off the bench was 20-year-old rookie Romeo Langford with 5 points. Brad Wanamaker missed all four of his shots. Enes Kanter was basically relegated to being unplayable because of the game’s up-tempo pace and his inability to defend Davis, who played mostly center.
So if the Celtics are going to go small with Hayward or Brown sometimes being switched to a big such as Davis, they are going to need to score. Their bench can defend but it lacks anyone who can provide scoring relief. That should be a focus in this developing buyout market.
Walker would have helped greatly, of course. But the Celtics should have won this game with the players they had available, and they can’t just assume they are going to eventually become fully healthy. Players such as Wanamaker, who was a minus-11 in his 18 minutes, have to capitalize on their minutes.
Unfortunately for Celtics coach Brad Stevens, his best defenders aren’t very offensive. So when they used Grant Williams, Semi Ojeleye or even Langford, offense is a luxury. So that places more of the onus on the starters, especially Hayward, who may have the most to benefit from a Tatum double-team.
“It’s something the whole team’s gotta be ready for,” Hayward said of the double-teams. “It’s a whole other level when it starts happening to you. You have to have an outlet. You have to have guys in the right spots. All of us are going to have to be better. If somebody is double-teamed and we make the right play, it should be easy shots or wide open shots. We have a lot of weapons and we should take advantage of that.”
So the Celtics now have to adjust to Tatum double-teams. They were obviously frazzled at times Sunday, unable to swing the ball to the weakside and committing turnovers. It was definitely a learning experience for the Celtics and a sign of respect for Tatum.
The Lakers officially set a blueprint for how to defend Boston: blitz Tatum and then let Brown, Hayward or Walker beat you.
“Nah, it was the first time,” Tatum said of being doubled. “I know what I’m capable of and my teammates know that. Yeah, we still should have won [even without Walker], we know that. We can’t make excuses.”