It's not as bad as it looks, I promise.
The league’s highest scoring fourth quarter team has suddenly taken on the narrative of a bad fourth quarter team. How did we get there? Following the Isaiah Thomas injury, the Celtics have lost three close games to quality teams, all of which predictably included a surrendered double-digit lead. Are the Celtics therefore not a clutch team? If not, is it even a valid criticism of their overall talent?
Clutch stats show that the Celtics are 8-7 in clutch games, or games where they lead or trail by five points in the last five minutes. Many of those wins came against weak opponents. As far as clutch wins go, only eight teams have more than Boston. As for the losses, 14 teams have lost more games in clutch situations. I’m not arguing that 8-7 isn’t a better record than people are arguing, but it’s hardly worth complaining about given the above context. Still, I’m going to go deeper.
Boston has played 54 clutch minutes this season. The teams ahead of them include Toronto, Oklahoma City, Memphis (13-3 in clutch games. Wow.) and a slew of bottom-feeding teams. The five teams with the least amount of such minutes played are the Hawks (35 minutes), the Jazz (28), the Warriors (26), the Cavaliers (25), and the Pistons (24). Maybe the Celtics aren’t clutch. Maybe we shouldn’t want to know. Are this year’s Warriors clutch? We don’t know if the games are never close, do we? Do we seriously want the Celtics to cement themselves as the clutch masters of the fourth quarter if all the top tier teams aren’t even playing their starters at the end of the game? I’m not trying to provide an excuse for the way the Celtics have been playing the last 12 minutes of each game, but I am saying you should look for solutions in the first 36. Let’s keep going.
As you may know, the Celtics have struggled with rebounding this season, as well as getting to the free throw line. If we’re going to look at clutch statistics as something to point fingers at, naturally we would check up on those areas. The Celtics have taken 43 free throws in 54 crunch minutes, giving them .79 free throws per clutch minute. The 10 teams ahead of them have taken 567 total free throws in 638 clutch minutes, giving them an average of .88 free throw attempts per minute. Given how wide the free throw discrepancies have been over an entire game, I’d say they’re doing just fine in the last five minutes. Moving on to rebounding, the Celtics have grabbed 52 boards in 54 clutch minutes, so that’s .96 per minute. The nine teams with more clutch rebounds have collectively claimed 619 rebounds in 605 clutch minutes, a rate of 1.02 per minute. This doesn’t even remotely cover up the Celtics’ (lack of) free throw shooting and rebounding, but does show the much the hustle ramps up at the end of games.
So, I’ve made it abundantly clear that the Celtics can hold their own in the fourth quarter against just about anybody, for better or for worse. It’s not their record in close games that I’m fixated on, nor is it the quality of their opponents in those games. These fourth quarter numbers show that the Celtics have all the players they need to compete already on the roster, but they can’t seem to get them working together early. The fourth quarter is the most unforgiving and brutal of them all, yet it’s where the Celtics play their best basketball. If they can manage to rebound and get to the line (even if it’s only Isaiah) in the toughest of conditions (fatigue, possibly foul trouble), then there’s no reason why they can’t do it in the first three quarters as well.
I’m totally in favor of a trade for Andrew Bogut. I’m all in on throwing everything on the table for Demarcus Cousins. But don’t create lazy narratives about clutch basketball or the lack thereof. The real problem areas are within first 36 minutes of play, as we know that the Celtics surrender their leads without much resistance. To reach the level of the Cavaliers, Warriors, or the Clippers, you need to be at the point where the fourth quarter in regular season games isn’t a big concern. And in a sense, it currently isn’t. Besides having the most fourth quarter scoring, Boston does it with one of the best fourth quarter players. Their overall record isn’t attractive, but they’re closer to elite than they’re getting credit for, and I already feel that this team is miles ahead of where they were at this point last season. 50 wins are still well within reach.