Breaking down Boston Celtics' struggles in clutch time situations

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Chris Forsberg
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Forsberg: What's wrong with Celtics in crunch time? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics have a clutch problem.

Halfway through the 2020-21 season, the Celtics have played a league-high 25 crunch-time games — score within 5 points in the final 5 minutes. That’s three more clutch games than any other team in the league. That ⅔ of their total games have been nail-biters is concerning on its own, in part because of the taxing schedule this season and an inability to give key players much-needed late-game rest.

The Celtics are a meager 11-14 in those clutch games, a tough look when you consider the teams with the most crunch-time wins are Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia 76ers (15-5) and Brooklyn Nets (14-7). Even the Hornets (12-5) and Heat (12-10) have more crunch-time wins than Boston.

One of the hallmarks of Celtics teams has been an ability to win close games in the Brad Stevens era. Entering this season, the Celtics were 107-72 in crunch-time games over the past four seasons. The defense wasn’t always perfect in those situations but Boston always seemed to be able to get a must-have stop when it needed it most and Stevens used his whiteboard to put the Celtics in position to escape with wins.

CELTICS IN CRUNCH TIME GAMES, BRAD STEVENS ERA

Season

W/L

MIN 

OFF Rtg

DEF Rtg

NET Rtg

2020-21

11-14

84

101.6

110.3

-8.7

2019-20

23-19

144

112.7

108.3

4.4

2018-19

23-19

148

125.7

114.8

10.9

2017-18

29-17

180

109.6

108.3

1.3

2016-17

32-17

187

119.7

107.9

11.7

2015-16

25-21

158

111.9

107.8

4.1

2014-15

20-25

174

104.7

103.6

1.1

2013-14

15-34

178

90.8

111.6

-20.8

For the first time since Stevens' rookie season on the bench, the Celtics have a negative net rating during crunch time. In fact, it’s a ghastly minus-8.7. While we’ve harped on the team’s inability to consistently get defensive stops at the end of close games in this space before, it’s the offensive numbers that might be even more troubling at the moment.

Boston’s offensive rating of 101.6 in crunch time this season ranks 25th in the NBA. That’s 11 points per 100 possessions lower than the team’s offensive rating for the season and 7.3 points lower than the meager 108.9 offensive rating the team has posted in the fourth quarter of games this season.

Marcus Smart: "I can live with a loss when our effort is there"

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What’s most concerning is that those offensive woes in crunch time seem to transfer over to the defensive end. Just rewind to Thursday night in Brooklyn. Boston pulled within 2 with under four minutes to play and couldn’t get that much-needed stop. Harden hit a floater, Daniel Theis missed a great look at a 3-pointer, and Kyrie Irving hit a 3 at the other end. Suddenly, the lead was back at 7.

Boston got back within four with just over 2 minutes to go and their final six offensive possessions were:

  • Jayson Tatum turnover leading to Kyrie Irving 3-pointer

  • Kemba Walker missed contested 25-foot stepback leading to Irving free throws after being fouled in transition

  • Tatum missed 13-foot turnaround

  • Jaylen Brown missed 3-pointer

  • Brown turnover

  • Brown turnover

The Celtics simply have to be better. There’s way too much offensive talent on the team to be kicking the ball all over the court with the game in the balance. There’s too much defensive potential, especially with Marcus Smart back, to continually allow teams to push their leads back out in crunch time.

Celtics-Nets takeaways: A rusty Jaylen Brown, a spry Marcus Smart

It sometimes feels like the Celtics have to work so darn hard to get a crunch-time basket and, when shots don’t fall, they hang their heads. The team’s lack of attacking the basket in those situations is likewise infuriating. Data suggests Boston is limiting opponents to 40.5 percent shooting overall in clutch time and just 30.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc — top 7 numbers overall — and yet it hasn’t routinely led to wins because the offense has sputtered so much in big moments. The Celtics’ lack of aggression at the basket limits the free throws in those situations, too.

Good teams find ways to win close games. Some of Boston’s current woes are fixable. They’ve given up a staggering amount of 3-pointers in recent games but that comes down to being better at rotations. They’ve shown in the past they can be the best 3-point defense.

But they need to find their late-game mojo. Every game in the playoffs is close. The best teams play their best balls in those moments. Too often this season, the Celtics crumble at the finish line.