Celtics' haphazard play has put Boston in a difficult spot

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Chris Forsberg
·7 min read
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Forsberg: Forget hitting the switch if the Celtics can't even find it originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Twenty four hours later, I have not been able to stop thinking about this turnover.

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Jayson Tatum’s careless flip led to a unforgivable backcourt giveaway and an easy Terry Rozier layup. It also summed up the Celtics’ effort level on Sunday in Charlotte. How coach Brad Stevens’ head didn’t explode on the sideline, especially considering his recent pleas for better ball security, is beyond our comprehension.

The haphazard Celtics now find themselves tied for the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference and teetering on the border of the play-in tournament. All the good will built during a six-game winning streak that culminated with a solid triumph over the Phoenix Suns has largely dissipated after consecutive losses to the Nets and Hornets.

Against Brooklyn, the Celtics at least had the excuse of health (though the Nets were missing two stars of their own and their third didn’t have a particularly dominant night). On Sunday, the Celtics were playing about as close to full health as they’ve been in recent weeks and elected to revert to all sorts of bad habits.

Celtics continued discouraging trend in ugly loss to Hornets

They came out listless, gave the Hornets early confidence, then simply watched as a Charlotte team playing without its best playmakers (Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball) zipped the ball around to the tune of 39 assists en route to a 21-point smackdown.

Stevens, typically measured in his criticisms, sent a shot across his team's bow after the game by noting how he told his players at halftime that, "I thought we were guarding [the Hornets] like we were expecting to play against ourselves. Like we were going to hold it for an extra dribble, instead of, like, boom, boom, boom.”

That’s about as savage as Stevens gets. He found a way to slander his team’s effort at both ends of the floor in a single sentence, all disguised as praise for the opponent. The Celtics’ offense routinely dribbled the air out of the ball, acted like the paint was molten lava, and settled for poor shots. (Well, when they weren’t committing unsightly turnovers.)

At the other end, the Hornets put on a ball-movement clinic and, aided by the early confidence Boston gave them, produced 21 3-pointers while shooting 48.8 percent beyond the arc.

Let’s take stock on some of the more frustrating aspects of Boston’s recent play: 

Jayson Tatum + turnovers

Tatum was brilliant for the better part of two weeks but he’s seemingly hit a wall the past week. It started against Chicago with the first of two 3-of-17 shooting performances, but we could look past the first one because he finished with a 10-assist triple-double against the Bulls. Boston even overcame his shooting woes to top Phoenix.

But Tatum now has 19 turnovers in his last four games, many of the head-slapping variety. Stevens probably regretted not giving Tatum the day off after the backcourt turnover highlighted above and Tatum quickly compounded matters. On an offensive possession two minutes later, after holding the ball for an uncomfortably long time, Tatum charged into a sea of teal jerseys and committed an offensive foul. He had a similar sequence early in the third quarter. He finished 6-of -16 shooting and was a season-worst minus-28 over 32 minutes.

A turn for the worse

Tatum's turnovers per game, first 51 games

2.5

Tatum's turnovers per game, last four games

4.8

Variation

Double

Part of being a superstar is finding a way to positively impact your team even on nights you simply don’t have it. Tatum draws so much attention and yet he had only two assists against the Hornets, who simply loaded up in the paint and challenged him to make plays for others.

Stevens has said he’s going to find a day off soon for Tatum. Typically, Tuesday night’s visit from Oklahoma City would be an ideal spot. But now each of the final 11 games matters for Boston, especially as this team desperately seeks continuity and chemistry, making that decision just a little bit tougher.

Alas, if Kemba Walker is going to sit out the second night of a back-to-back against Charlotte, then maybe sitting Tatum on Tuesday is the best option.

Evan Fournier's return

We all know by now how difficult it can be for players to regain their ways after a bout with COVID. Some guys like Tristan Thompson are able to crank it back up on the court relatively quickly but others like Tatum have really struggled to get back to their typical ways. So it’s understandable that Evan Fournier is having some difficulties after a three-week absence.

Fournier details experience with COVID, difficulty of returning

The hard part for the Celtics is that his late-season addition left a small window for developing chemistry and continuity (and that says nothing about the free agency that looms after the season). Boston knows what its playoff rotation will look like but health woes have prevented players from generating any sort of continuity or chemistry with those groups.

It’s imperative over the final 11 games that Fournier gets more comfortable with Boston’s personnel. On Friday against Brooklyn, he wandered from the corner and Marcus Smart ended up passing the ball to a warmup jersey-clad Thompson in a key moment. Fournier’s shot will almost certainly come -- he had a rough patch after missing a short time at the start of his Boston tenure and rebounded to get real hot with his 3-point shot.

Roller coaster start

Fournier's first two games with Celtics

6 pts (3 for 16)

Fournier's next two games with Celtics

40 pts (13 for 22)

Variation

Double

But Fournier’s woes underscore how Boston needs at least a handful of games late in this regular season just to really get everyone on the same page, if only to be feeling good about how a tightened rotation looks when the playoffs arrive.

Romeo, oh Romeo

Romeo Langford has played some terrific defense since returning from offseason surgery, but right before that Brooklyn game, we wondered out loud if he could cement his spot in Boston’s playoff rotation by building off that defensive success.

Langford, who has struggled to positively impact the offense in his floor time, had a dud against the Nets and got the hook from Stevens, who inserted rookie Aaron Nesmith in search of energy.

If the Celtics are fortunate to have full health -- that's a monster IF -- during the postseason, there’s not a lot of potential minutes available outside of their top eight. Langford can potentially get some minutes but he has to play with more urgency and has to find a way to impact the offense.

Hunting for positives

Let’s not be a total downer to start the week.

Marcus Smart, in particular, deserves credit for his efforts in trying to spark this team. He’s been animated in huddles when things are going poorly. In the third quarter of both games against the Nets and Suns, Smart single-handedly tried to infuse energy and carry a sputtering offense.

If everyone played with Smart's intensity, this team could cure a lot of what often ails it. That’s why Nesmith has been such a pleasure to watch lately because he’s at least trying to make things happen.

The Celtics need to bottle up that energy and cut down on the avoidable miscues like that darn Tatum turnover. This team’s margin for error is simply too thin this season.

2021 NBA Mock Draft: Prospects who could be available for Celtics

Full health could help this team and Stevens has stressed that’s the priority down the stretch, even as the team will have to factor in avoiding the play-in tournament. (Even the No. 6 seed is no picnic if it's a first-round joust with the Milwaukee Bucks). Boston has a high ceiling when it’s able to lean heavier on a top eight with a playoff rotation but, again, that hinges on staying healthy.

When so much is left to chance, these Celtics have to take care of what they can control. Like not turning the ball over in the backcourt.