The Celtics Have a Momentum Problem

The Celtics can't keep leads or get to the line. Are these things connected? Yes.

The scarcity of free throws and the lack of rebounding still stand out as the most pressing issues the Celtics are trying to solve after a heartbreaking 109-103 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs predictably outrebounded the Celtics 45 to 36 and took 25 free throws to Boston’s nine.

Boston obviously needs to get to the line more, but not only to score more points. Obviously, the outcome of last night’s game was almost single-handedly decided by free throw shooting, but the underlying issue is that the Celtics have a hard time using momentum to their advantage. From game one we’ve seen a lot of double-digit leads slip away, turning a comfortable win into a nail-biter. The most recent example of this is a 14 point lead evaporating against San Antonio, where the Spurs scored 12 unanswered points over about six minutes. Six minutes.

Sometimes the shots don’t fall, and such is basketball. Sometimes you don’t get the calls, and such is Celtics basketball. Isaiah Thomas gets banged up around the basket when he drives, and the silence of the referees is frustrating, but there are other ways to get to the line. With 2:18 remaining in the game, Jae Crowder fouled Kawhi Leonard. Why? The answer is because Leonard almost beat all five Celtics down the court off a missed shot that the Celtics desperately needed. This brought a four-point Spurs lead up to six, and Kawhi never even had to dribble past the three-point line.

There’s not much use in dwelling on all the “could haves” after every loss. The Celtics could have gotten more calls, but they should have gotten back on defense, and they didn’t. The momentum was announced dead on the scene.

The Spurs are a great team, and I’m not at all surprised that they could dig out of an early hole and scrap out a win. The Celtics are a pretty good team themselves, and their tremendous decline in offensive production, while they have a lead, is alarming no matter who the opponent is. When trailing their opponent, Boston plays better, and I think that makes sense. We’ve seen enough Isaiah Thomas-fueled fourth quarters to understand how the Celtics operate when they’re clawing their way back. When leading, the Celtics offense drops off anywhere from a little bit to a tremendous amount. I can understand how teams will sometimes take their foot off the gas, but look at this:

Margin Minutes FG% 3PT% plus/minus
Behind 6-10 86 44 35 6.7
Behind 1-5 112 46 31 2.6
Tied 34 63 57 43.3
Ahead 1 - 5 171 42 41 6.2
Ahead 6-10 118 45 29 -0.4
Ahead 11-15 70 36 27 -52
Ahead 16-20 15 44 16 -9
Ahead more than 20 9 38 33 -20

(credit to stats)

Turns out they’re downright terrible after pushing a lead past 10. To my knowledge, it hasn’t been consistent which players are mostly responsible for this, but there are certain parts of the game where the Celtics have struggled all year. The first rough patch is usually late in the first quarter or early in the second. I wouldn’t blame the bench, as there are still usually one or two starters still on the floor, but I feel like I most often see defensive lapses from Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. It’s no coincidence they are two of the youngest players on the team. Another problem area is the third quarter, where the Celtics struggle to start second halves with a sense of urgency.

Why is this happening?

Dare I say these trends are connected to coaching? The Celtics show up to games prepared, but after a few timeouts, their opponents always claw their way back. Boston is relatively healthy now and has the benefit of a deep roster, such so that they can always deploy a competitive lineup, unlike when they were leaning on Tyler Zeller and Gerald Green. When their opponents adjust, they do a great job, and I think that loops back to one of the main points from earlier— free throws. If you can stop the clock and still score, then you control the pace of the game. By making free throws, you limit transition baskets and take a lot of pressure off your defense. The Celtics defensive has significantly improved and they’re back to getting stops when they need them, but the lack of free throws means they can never slow the game down so that the defense can set up. They’re giving up about 10 points less per game in their last six contests than they were in their first 10, but their own scoring has dipped as well. When games are close, the free throws start to add up. It’s up to players like Crowder, Rozier, and Brown (if he can win the minutes back) to get to the line more.

In the upcoming games, I'll be watching to see how the Celtics generate offense and if it’s conducive to more free throw shooting. It takes more than just driving to the basket. Think back to the Paul Pierce days, where he would punish defenders for playing him too close. 

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