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The Celtics’ reliance on late-game comebacks could cost them in the Eastern Conference playoff race

A few weeks from now, all anybody’s going to remember from last night’s matchup against the Phoenix Suns will be the final 10 minutes of the game.

What a stretch it was, to be fair. The Celtics trailed the Suns by 16 points with 5:34 remaining on the clock, only to tie Phoenix at the buzzer on a clutch three-pointer from Marcus Morris and defeat them in overtime behind the late-game heroics of Kyrie Irving. Less than an hour real-time after Phoenix’s win probability was 99.6%, a potential 6-5 record became 7-4. The NBA Stats lead tracker for the game looks like a practical joke.


And yet, I still watched those other three quarters. Loathe as I am to play spoilsport after an exciting finish (and one that I myself enjoyed quite a bit), the Celtics’ 43 minutes of general listlessness are a serious concern that absolutely cannot go unaddressed.

Put shortly, the Celtics spent much of this game looking absolutely dismal. Their field goal percentage sat below 40% for most of the game (the late fireworks still only dragged them up to 41%), and they simply couldn’t seem to buy a bucket to save their lives. After Irving opened the night’s scoring with a three-pointer, they missed 11 consecutive baskets — most of which were wide open. They’d finish the first quarter with 13 points.

(Due to an ongoing issue with the NBA Stats website, the informative videos that would normally be embedded here have been replaced with an artist’s interpretation.)


The offensive ineptitude was felt team-wide, but nobody was hit harder by it than Jayson Tatum, who posted perhaps the worst game of his young NBA career. He would finish the night with only four points on 1-of-7 shooting, and managed to hang zeros in every single statistical category apart from shot attempts in the first half. The Kobe-esque fadeways he’s been catching flak in the early going weren’t really even much of a factor here, apart from one particularly ugly one early — he was just flat-out bad. Brad Stevens would condemn him to the bench for the first nine minutes of the second half, and for good reason — effort like this simply isn’t going to cut it.


This wasn’t simply a case of good shots not finding the net, though. The Celtics turned the ball over a whopping 16 times (14 through the first three quarters) against one of the most inept defensive units in the entire league, leading to 17 Phoenix points. Many of these were just inexcusable, and the team seemed to suffer from a severe lack of focus.


The Suns’ offense is a bit of a different beast than their defense, but even still, the Celtics did not play like they had the best defensive rating in basketball tonight. Devin Booker is going to get his buckets on any given night, but players like the mediocre T.J. Warren pour in 19 points in the first half, something’s gone wrong.


Even the Celtics’ traditionally strong three-point defense suffered, allowing the Suns to shoot 10-of-22 from behind the arc through the first three quarters. For much of the night, it felt like the Celtics’ defenders were just consistently a few steps behind on every player, leading to a lot of easy looks for Phoenix’s shooters. Again, this was simply indicative of a lack of focus for much of the game.


This all sounds immensely negative, and again, I’m sorry to be such a wet blanket after a win like this. There were certainly positives here. Irving was out of this world, posting his fifth straight excellent game after scoring only three points against the Detroit Pistons on October 27. Tatum responded well to his third quarter benching, applying himself much more effectively in each phase of the game, with eight rebounds, two assists and steal, alongside some tough perimeter defense the rest of the way. Marcus Morris relished the opportunity to sink his old team in the fourth quarter, with a pair of three-pointers that included the game-tying triple at the end of regulation. Even Semi Ojeleye added some quality minutes in the third quarter.

Still, this game should not have required this kind of effort. The Oklahoma City comeback was one thing — the Thunder are a legitimately good team, and a likely Western Conference playoff contender — but the Suns rank among the league’s worst. The Celtics needed every single one of Kyrie Irving’s 39 points tonight, and that just shouldn’t be the case when they outclass their opponent so substantially in talent. If he was merely “great” instead of “transcendent” down the stretch, this would have been the kind of loss you look back on and say “what if?”

Obviously, the Celtics made a living on these kind of comebacks last season, rallying back from significant deficits with such regularity that it was actually laughable. The difference is that, while last season’s team played virtually free of any expectations after Hayward’s injury, the specter of Eastern Conference contention looms large over this year’s squad. This kind of flirting with disaster is something this team cannot afford; great teams put their foot down on bad ones, and that’s something the Celtics have yet to make happen.

The top end of the conference is shaping up to be an “every win matters” affair. The Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks remain perched atop the East with commanding 11-1 and 9-2 starts, respectively. The Celtics did pick up a win on their home court against the Bucks four games ago, but (counting the playoffs) they haven’t won a game in Milwaukee in over a calendar year. That is why playoff seeding is so exceptionally important, and it’s never too early to be looking ahead.

The Celtics scrapped their way to their seventh win of the season behind the exploits of Kyrie Irving. Disaster averted. If the Celtics are going to achieve their formidable ceiling this season, though, this is the kind of performance they need to avoid. After all, the East’s elite aren’t exactly going to wait around for Boston to catch up.

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