Crunch-time swagger couldn't be more different with Heat and Celtics

Forsberg: Crunch-time swagger couldn't be more different with Heat and Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics are undeniably talented and, yet, if the core of the team has had one consistent flaw, it’s been an inability to consistently thrive in crunch-time situations.

Boston’s late-game woes have taken center stage as Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat have dominated clutch time in consecutive games to steal two games in Boston and pack a commanding 2-0 series lead as the series shifts back to South Beach.

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The Celtics’ unsteadiness late in games is nothing new. A year ago, Boston posted a 7-5 mark in 12 crunch-time games — score within five points, final five minutes — during its run to the NBA Finals. An anemic 89.1 offensive rating in those games that leaped off the page.

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In two crunch-time games versus the Heat, Boston’s offense has consistently crumbled yet again. In seven minutes of crunch-time play, Boston has mustered just eight points on 1-of-9 shooting, including missing all six 3-pointers it has attempted. Boston has committed five turnovers — most of a painfully avoidable variety — and the Heat have outscored the Celtics by 13 in that span.

The juxtaposition of Butler wreaking havoc at both ends of the court in the game’s biggest spots, compared to Boston’s inability to run a functional offense has been jarring.

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It also hasn’t been a surprise. For the better part of the past two seasons, the Celtics have struggled in crunch-time scenarios. During the 2021-22 season, Boston was 13-22 in clutch games while posting a minus-9.5 net rating and a 97.7 offensive rating, both of which ranked 26th in the league.

Clutch struggles were a huge headline entering the playoffs last season but Boston seemed to turn a corner, starting with Jayson Tatum’s buzzer-beater to sink the Nets in Boston’s postseason opener. But the offensive struggles, exacerbated by ball security issues, were painful at times throughout the rest of the postseason run.

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The Celtics seemed to be improving this past season while posting the second-best winning percentage in clutch games and going 24-13 (.649). The dirty secret was that Boston triggered a handful of clutch wins while watching their offense go stagnant and opponents cutting double-digit leads down to single digits in the final minutes.

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It has come to roost in the postseason. While Boston has certainly had solid moments — Tatum dominating the end of Game 6 in Philadelphia springs to mind — there have numerous painful offensive lulls — and notable defensive miscues — that have once again complicated Boston’s playoff path.

Complicating matters, Joe Mazzulla has leaned heavily into his no-timeout strategy, trying to allow his players to navigate bumps in the road. The first-year coach has sometimes struggled to push the right buttons.

The end of Game 2 against the Heat was begging for Derrick White and Robert Williams, two of Boston’s best players throughout the game. Alas, the two have played sparingly in that situation and Boston’s offense yet again fell into familiar troubles.

Here’s a look at Boston’s individual performances in clutch time this postseason:

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Tatum has solid shooting splits but had some rough moments at the end of Game 1 against the Heat. Smart has been plagued by turnovers, including a maddening fumble in a key spot in Game 2. Brown has made only one crunch-time shot in 37 minutes.

The Celtics have simply not played with the steadiness and swagger of a typical title contender. Championship-caliber teams routinely thrive in pressure situations and have superstars that carry the team in those moments. The crunch-time Celtics sometimes feel like they are simply trying to hold on in these moments.

To be clear, this isn’t an “Are the Jays clutch?” column. They’ve had their moments in key spots. But they simply don’t operate with the swagger that Butler oozes in those spots. Maybe they’ll grow into that sort of late-game killer.

For all of Boston’s missteps in this series, they’ve had two opportunities to secure wins. Alas, they allowed the game to reach “Jimmy Time,” and he’s punished them twice.

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We’ll keep saying it: These Celtics don’t always respond well to adversity. They have a propensity to drift away from what has worked so well for much of the season.

"Just effort, playing the right way the whole game, honestly in my opinion,” Williams III said of Boston’s propensity to grind to a halt on offense. "And trusting each other. We got to gain that trust and keep that trust throughout the whole game."

Now, their season is in crunch time. Can the Celtics figure out how to keep their composure and fight their way back into the series? Can they play Celtics basketball in high-pressure situations?

“One, we just got to stay poised,” said Brown. "I think we get sped up at times. Two, we just play basketball. In those moments we got to come alive. It seems like we let the game slip away from us when we are in those situations.”

The Celtics have to prevent the season from slipping away, too.