Second half offense fuels Boston’s collapse

Anachronistic, adjective: belonging or appropriate to an earlier period.

There’s no better word to describe the brand of offense we saw from the Celtics in the second half of their collapse against the Chicago Bulls. Ime Udoka leaned on his veterans despite the rotation’s poor shooting ability as a collective, meaning low-usage shooters Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard remained glued to the bench.

Ball movement gave way for single screen pick-and-rolls, and the rim pressure we saw in the first half morphed into a flurry of mid-range attempts. Anachronistic, appropriate to an earlier period; we thought that a young, well-regarded coach would innovate an offense that seemed stagnant in Brad Stevens’ final months, yet we’re still watching the same de-evolution when the chips are down.

“I would just like to play basketball; every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen. And every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys try to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball, and that’s something they’re going to learn. They’re still learning, and we’re proud of the progress they are making, but they are going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team, to open up the court for them later in the game, where they don’t always have to take those tough shots or take tough matchups when they do get the one-on-one, and you bring the trap. Just reading that, it’s something we’ve been asking them to do, and they’re learning, so we just gotta continue to help those guys do that to help our team,” Marcus Smart said after the Boston Celtics registered just seven assists and eight turnovers in the second half.

The statistics from the first half to the second are striking and further underline the disparity between the Celtics approach. In the first half, the Celtics shot 48.1% from the field and 56.3% from deep, and they registered 13 assists, 22 rebounds, 7 steals, and just one turnover. Everything was working, players were cutting, ball movement was crisp and purposeful, and the weak side defensive lapses looked to have been resolved. Furthermore, the Celtics were stringing together solid defensive possessions in the half-court and forced shot clock violation or late clock attempts on multiple occasions. Things looked hopeful.

“We need to be able to finish games and not stop playing or not relax. Teams are going to keep fighting, and we have to continue to attack. For us, we’ll look at the good, but we’re also going to have to look at the bead in that fourth quarter and understand we’re going to need to play through that adversity. That’s the reality. They made a run, we called a time out, I told the guys that’s their run, that’s why they did, but we just never overcome that. As a group, we have to come in tighter in those situations, which is all part of learning how to win. I know we have some guys who have some years and all that, but as a group, we’re figuring it out,” Horford explained after the Celtics lost the fourth quarter by 28 points.

Boston was outscored by 22 points in the second half of the game while giving up eight turnovers and only assisting on seven baskets in the final two quarters. The Celtics went 17-of-44 from the field (38.6%) while only hitting on 6 of their 17 attempts from three (35.3%). There was a haphazardness to their game that reeked of overconfidence and devolved into sheer panic as the game started slipping away. Quite frankly, they choked.

This sort of play belongs on an AAU court, not in an NBA game. Granted, the pressure was high, and Jayson Tatum was looking to feed Horford with the wrap-around pass, but he had Josh Richardson in the strong-side corner that was a far easier pass to make. Teams know that the Celtics will look to initiate their offense through their two star wings down the stretch and are adjusting their coverages to force the pass, as Marcus Smart alluded to. Watch the possession again, and look how the Bulls have their perimeter defense lined up, they’re baiting Tatum to either drive or give up the rock.

“There’s only so much I can do without the ball in my hand, just sitting there in the corner. We’re running plays for our best players, every team knows that, and they do a good job of shutting that down. And we can’t allow that, when they shut that down, we can’t keep going to those guys, we’ve got to abort that and find another way to get them the ball in the spots they need the ball. Like I said, for me, I can only do so much standing in the corner or when I come up and give the ball away. I do everything I can on the other end to combat that, and I try to talk, I try to make plays to get those guys the ball where they need it and where they want it,” Smart discussed after failing to register a single assist against the Bulls.

Of course, the players deserve the lion’s share of the criticism for their abject second half performance. Still, there’s also the question of Ime Udoka’s adjustments, rotation choices, and failure to implement sets and schemes to get players going. The fact that for the second game in a row, Jaylen Brown has got hot, only to become a spectator down the stretch, is criminal.

Then there’s the shortened rotation this early in the season, despite numerous overtime games, and the love of a non-shooting trio that includes Marcus Smart, Dennis Schroder, and Josh Richardson. Square pegs for round holes.

We can question the effort levels of the players and their execution down the stretch. Still, we also need to examine the coaching decisions, especially regarding the shot selection they’re preaching. We’re very close to doing a complete U-turn and calling for Tatum to shoot more threes – he didn’t shoot a single three in the first half, and only four all game. And while Robert Williams has been exceptional when on the floor, not utilizing his vertical spacing on pick-and-rolls is, to use Udoka’s words, “mind-boggling.”

We’re only early into the season, and it’s likely all these kinks get worked out in the coming weeks and months. Yet, the problems are mounting up for a team that was supposed to be strengthened by the influx of veteran talent, so seeing them collapse in the manner of a rebuilding team is, of course, worrisome.

And yet again, we find ourselves waiting to see how the team responds in their next game, full of questions that have no easy answers, but still, we continue to hope lessons have been learned.

We’ve been hoping for that for some time now.

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