Celtics' woeful crunch-time offense lets another inferior opponent off the hook

Tomase: Celtics need a fix for their woeful crunch-time offense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Soccer adherents call their sport "the beautiful game." When played divinely, it's like admiring a Rembrandt at the symphony over a sumptuous meal – a feast for all senses.

If you're wondering what the opposite of the beautiful game is, just watch the Celtics try to seal a victory. That's an ordeal more akin to being paintballed in the kidney while slurping cold Tuna Helper with Kokomo on infinite repeat. It's an assault on the senses.

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On Monday night in the cursed TD Garden, the Tuna Helper went down like fishy sludge. Once again, the Celtics let an inferior opponent linger on the back of one transcendent player, with Philadelphia's James Harden playing the role of last week's nuisance, Trae Young.

Celtics Talk POSTGAME POD: Harden's 45-point night stuns Celtics as Embiid-less Sixers take Game 1 | Listen & Subscribe

Once again, they opened a late two-possession lead anyway. Once again, they had numerous opportunities to make a stop and ice the game on offense. And once again, they let the inferior opponent close on a run -- 12-4, this time -- to escape with a 119-115 Game 1 victory that needlessly complicates the pursuit of Banner 18.

It would be easier to dismiss as a weird outlier if it didn't happen EVERY OTHER GAME. Al Horford suggested they let their guard down with MVP favorite Joel Embiid sidelined by a knee sprain -- an unforgivable sin in the postseason, when four losses send you home.


But really, the problems that plagued the Celtics could just as easily have occurred against the 2016 Warriors or the 1990 Mansfield High JV Hornets. They're never about the opponent, and always about the Celtics.

Forsberg: Celtics flirting with danger again after familiar Game 1 loss

Specifically, their crunch time offense. How often have we watched this pattern unfold: Celtics race to an early lead on ball movement and pace, ease up before halftime, and then trigger a freeway pileup late in the fourth quarter?

The stats will show that the Celtics shot 58.7 percent and couldn't stop Philly, which would seemingly put this on the defense. But don't be fooled. They lost this game, just like they lost Game 5 to the Hawks, because they can't create a shot in the last two minutes.


That's when ball movement ceases, Jayson Tatum pounds the logo, and the Celtics inevitably launch a contested 23-footer.

Consider their possessions over the final three minutes after a Marcus Smart 3-point play gave them a 111-107 lead:

  • Tatum dribbles aimlessly 35 feet from the hoop until three seconds remain on the shot clock. His rushed pass to Malcolm Brogdon is deflected back to him, and he catches more backboard than iron on a fall-away 3-pointer.

  • After a Horford block and outlet pass, Jaylen Brown has the makings of a 3-on-2, but he pulls it out to run clock. The Celtics get a good shot and an offensive rebound, but a cutting Tatum can't make a layup and Tyrese Maxey converts a 3-point play the other way.

  • Tatum attacks the paint early in the shot clock, putting the Sixers into scramble mode. The Celtics grab two offensive rebounds before Horford's layup makes it 113-110 with 1:14 left.

  • At the risk of overstatement, what follows is the worst possession in NBA history. The Celtics make six passes as the shot clock evaporates. The final finds Brogdon with a second to shoot. He instead throws blindly to the top of the key and directly to Maxey, who races the other way in disbelief for the go-ahead dunk while the Celtics plaintively wave for a shot clock violation. Behold their crunch time offense: hoping the other guys run out of time.

  • Tatum attacks immediately with a 2-for-1 opportunity. He's fouled with 26 seconds left and makes both free throws to give the Celtics a one-point lead. More of this, please.

  • It doesn't last. Harden drills a 3 over Horford. That leaves one final chance with eight seconds left. The Celtics have struggled with inbounds plays this postseason, but this one gets Smart going to the hoop for what looks like a go-ahead layup. He instead tries to find Tatum in traffic, the pass bounces off his hands, and that's the game.


Rather than drawing upon their extensive postseason experience to put away a visitor missing its best player, the Celtics unveiled a three-minute clinic in panic, aimlessness, and indecision, and not for the first time.

In the process, they've made life harder on themselves, since every extra game they play increases the likelihood that Embiid returns, and the last time the Celtics saw him, he dropped 52.

It shouldn't matter. The Celtics are the better team regardless of Embiid's status, and when they're locked in, no one plays the game more beautifully. Now if they could just keep the last two minutes from turning so ugly.