Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
Marcus Smart was right to call out the Celtics
The Boston Celtics led the Chicago Bulls by 19 with 14:53 to play on Monday and lost by 14. The Celtics did not record a single defensive rebound in the fourth quarter, as the Bulls made 13 of their 16 field-goal attempts and corralled offensive rebounds on their three misses. It was an impossibly bad outing for a team that hoped a coaching change would revitalize a roster that reached the 2020 Eastern Conference finals.
Celtics coach Ime Udoka had already publicly called out his new team's effort multiple times before the NBA calendar turned to November, and this time it was Marcus Smart's turn. The longest-tenured player on the Celtics spent much of his five-minute postgame press conference levying pointed criticism against his All-Star teammates, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both of whom did not address the media afterwards.
"Every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen," Smart told reporters. "Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. Everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys try to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball. That’s something that they’re going to learn. They’re still learning. We’re proud of the progress they’re making, but they’re going to have to make another step."
Smart lamented their isolation brand of basketball, preferring to be included in the facilitation of the offense.
"There's only so much I can do without the ball in my hands. I just sit and stand in the corner. We're running plays for our best players," he said. "Every team knows that. They do a good job of shutting that down. We can’t allow that. We can’t keep trying to go to those guys. We’ve got to abort that, find another way to get them the ball in the spots that they need the ball. For me, I can only do so much just sitting in the corner."
It was the kind of honest assessment you rarely hear in the NBA, especially not so early in the season. The Celtics have underperformed expectations ever since the 2020 conference finals, and there is a disconnect between featuring two stars who averaged 51 points between them last season and their .500 status. No team with two of the 12 best players in the East, especially one with a handful of playoff-tested veterans around them, should be battling for a play-in bid, and yet Boston left its Chicago game with a 2-5 record.
Smart was accurate in his analysis of the team's stagnant offense, particularly late in games. Tatum's isolation has increased each season to 6.4 possessions per game, second in the NBA and almost a quarter of his offensive repertoire. More than 60% of his made field goals are unassisted. He is shooting 37% from the field and 27% from 3-point range, easily the worst efficiency among the league's highest-usage players.
To a lesser degree, Brown is also using more iso possessions than ever before and inching closer to recording more unassisted than assisted field goals for the first time in his career. He has managed to score efficiently, averaging 25.6 points on 49/40/78 shooting splits, but he and Tatum have no business logging a combined assist rate (30%) lower than Oklahoma City Thunder rookie playmaking wing Josh Giddey.
No team has run more isolation plays this season than the Celtics, and their 0.77 points per 100 possessions ranks 27th in the league. When the ball sticks, defenses are loading up on Boston's two young stars, and they are either slow to recognize it or willfully ignoring it. When they do finally move the ball, it is often too late. Boston's 79 field-goal attempts in the final four seconds of the shot clock are the fourth-most in the NBA, and the Celtics are shooting 25.3% on those opportunities, third from the bottom.
The lack of connectivity on offense has also had a cascading effect on defense, where Tatum has missed assignments while complaining to officials about perceived blown calls. It is a troubling trend for a team that can field five-man lineups full of quality defenders, one that suggests a chemical failure on the roster.
You can make the argument what Smart said was right, but he was not right to air it publicly, which is one interpretation of what Brown said when asked about his teammate's comments two days later. "Obviously, in the midst of trying to win games, it's probably something that we didn't need," he said on Wednesday.
Except, stagnation has become increasingly detrimental over the past several years, as the Celtics' two rising stars have gained more control of the offense, to the point it derailed an entire season. The problem was repeatedly addressed behind closed doors in training camp, only to grow worse in the early going of this campaign, and no amount of private prodding was generating the intended results. Sometimes, when you take an issue public, it forces everyone to reconcile with it in a way they would not have otherwise.
The Celtics met on Tuesday to discuss their collapse against the Bulls in what has been classified as either an "emotional" players-only meeting or team dinner, which ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski described as "perhaps not a terribly productive meeting, maybe not even beneficial." Concerns aside about who leaked details of a closed-doors meeting, Boston responded with its best stretch of basketball in recent memory.
The Celtics entered halftime of Wednesday's tilt trailing the lowly Orlando Magic 46-44. Since then, they beat the Magic and a Miami Heat team firing on all cylinders by a combined score of 143-111 on a road back-to-back, singlehandedly improving their defense from the 27th-rated outfit to a top-10 unit, where they resided on deep playoff runs to Games 7 and 6 of the conference finals in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
It did not hurt that Josh Richardson's left foot contusion forced Udoka to play second-year wing Aaron Nesmith meaningful minutes for the first time all season. Nesmith proved throughout the second half of last season, summer league and preseason that his shooting and energy off the bench are difference-makers. He responded with 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting and a +15 rating in 18 minutes against the six-win Heat.
The offense is by no means fixed, but the back-to-back victories in Orlando and Miami marked four of Tatum and Brown's six lowest single-game totals for field-goal attempts. Tatum's usage in Wednesday's win over the Heat was his lowest of the year, as he passed up opportunities on another night his shot was not falling. Only six times did he have a lower usage rate last season. The Celtics won five of those games.
When Tatum or Brown do pass out of pressure, move without the ball and find a better look when it swings back around to them over the course of a possession, it is jarring both how rare and simplistic it is. Brown did it to get a wide-open 3-pointer and give the Celtics an 87-69 lead midway through the third quarter against Chicago — his last basket of the game. And Tatum did it to get his first made field goal against Miami — a wide-open 3-pointer that gave them an 84-62 advantage at the 8:35 mark of the fourth quarter.
There can be a delicate balance between asking developing stars to create more for others and risking them hesitating when advantageous scoring opportunities arise, but framed within the context of foregoing difficult shots to get better ones, the general principle becomes an easier one to process in the moment.
The shots still did not fall at an average rate against the Magic and Heat, but the commitment to better ball movement was encouraging for Boston. Even better was their cohesion on defense. There is truth to role players engaging more defensively when they feel more involved offensively, and it is possible to elevate Tatum and Brown as stars within that framework, even if Smart sometimes needs to remind them of it.
For two games at least, the veteran point guard's comments have proven both productive and beneficial. A 4-5 record — with two losses coming in double overtime — at least makes for a less emotional next dinner.
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