Celtics Journal: Game 12 of 82, Sun 11/23, Blazers @ Celtics (How to Lose Close Games)


Game 12 of 82 (14.6%), Sunday, November 23, 3:00 PST

Blazers @ Celtics

Portland’s Rise

Last year, Portland galloped off to a 22-5 start and had NBA experts demanding that they stop dominating teams with their well-lubricated ball movement and nifty three-point shooting. It was true that the Blazers had feasted on weaker opponents and that their torrid shooting and excellent 4th quarter play had to regress at some point. After 15 games, the Blazers were 13-2. I looked at five of the NBA’s top offenses and what made them so effective. They were hitting three-pointers at an insane clip, and their focus on LaMarcus Aldridge’s mid-range game kept them from turning the ball over. By maintaining the 8th best assist-to-turnover ratio, the Blazers were able to make up for their lack of pace. At the time, Wesley Mathews was shooting 53% from deep. By season’s end, Mathews had gone back to his career mark of 39%. The Blazers finished the season with 54 wins, and matched up with the Houston Rockets in the playoffs.

To the surprise of some, despite their identical records, the Blazers beat Houston in 6 games. LaMarcus Aldridge’s 40-point performances were the opening headlines of the series. A Damian Lillard epic game-winner over Chandler Parsons’ outstretched arm remains the defining image of the series.What can’t be forgotten, however, is the Blazers defense.

Defensive Chemistry

Many of those knowledgeable NBA folks refused to believe Portland could defend in the playoffs. It may have helped that they matched up with Houston, whose offense revolved around James Harden’s individual creativity, Dwight Howard’s post-ups, and a fast-paced transition-focused game. Howard’s free-throw shooting was exploited. Harden’s moves were stifled by the physicality and smarts of Wesley Mathews and Nicolas Batum, and the Blazers moved on. Watching Mathews and Batum play defense is inspiring. Watching Harden: not so much. As Celtics fans recall (2008-2012) defensive chemistry is what separates good teams from the great ones.

Marcus Smart may someday follow in the Mathews mold, with more penetrating and passing ability. The three-point shot is what has elevated Mathews’ career. Both Houston and Portland are dominating again this year.

After only Golden State, Houston and Portland are currently tied for 2nd in opponent field-goal percentage (.413). They take away the three-pointer better than every other team, including the notoriously stingy Spurs, giving up only 5.4 per game. The caveat, of course, is that these numbers are based on 13 games, and they have yet to face Houston, San Antonio, and Memphis, the cream of the Western Conference. Last year, Portland was 21-22 against plus .500 teams. In that way, they make a nice measuring stick for opponents. If you beat Portland (and it’s not because of the schedule), you are probably a good team. If you lose to Portland, you’re probably not a good team. By that measure, the Celtics are not quite a good team. We’ve learned that much over 12 games. They are certainly not a bad team. They are a young team, struggling to win close games. That struggle is painful.

The Game

The Celtics defended Portland well. They held Aldridge and Lillard in check (combining for 32 points on 35 shot attempts). They defended the three-point line, holding Portland to 7 of 19 from deep. What they didn’t do well is defend the paint. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Repainting the Paint

Neither Kelly Olynyk nor Jared Sullinger is a center. Brad Stevens’ only other option is Tyler Zeller, and Stevens is committed to allowing Olynyk to work through his mistakes, which are plenty. Olynyk is a work-in-progress. He is showing serious range early in the season, connecting on 45% from beyond the arc, and 55% overall. He’s active in defending passing lanes, coming up with deflections and a few steals.

The toughest thing about watching these almost-there-losses (Phoenix and Portland especially) is that the patience required of watching a young player (Olynyk) develop means watching things fall apart. He’s simply in over his head at times. When he’s not stretching the defense and hitting threes, Olynyk puts too much pressure on the Celtics defense. Tyler Zeller is not the long-term answer at center, either, but he is serviceable, and gives Boston a semblance of paint-clogging defense. Olynyk is the main reason Chris Kaman put together 16 points and 8 boards in 18 minutes.

Portland game-planned for Olynyk’s shooting. The result: 27 minutes, 0 of 3 from the field, 0 points. Negative 15.

Three Defining Moments from Sunday

  • The Celtics led 49-41 with 0:10 remaining in the first half. Brandon Bass had an open 13-footer. Bass is practically automatic on this shot. He missed long, and Damion Lillard finished the half with a 3-point play. Five point swing. Instead of leading by 10, Boston is up 5 at the half. Celtics 49, Blazers 44. http://on.nba.com/1C4Ny7H
  • This may seem like nit-picking. It is. I hate it when players save the ball under their opponent’s hoop. Sullinger was trying to make a hustle play after deflecting a pass. He saves the ball, directly to a Blazer. It ends in an Aldridge lay-up. Blazers 59, Celtics 57. http://on.nba.com/11pF8qP
  • Beginning of the 4th quarter, simple mistake: Evan Turner takes his eye of the ball while receiving the pass. Coming out of the huddle, first play of the 4th. Players make mistakes. Things happen. Sometimes one or two possessions can swing a game. Score 72-72. Turner coming off a screen at top of the key. No deflection. Just slips through his hands. Portland goes on to score the next 8 points in the first 1:47 of the 4th. The Celtics won’t recover.  http://on.nba.com/1C4R2qM

This is how you lose close games. The coaching cliche, “You have to value every possession,” holds meaning. You hear it in the playoff huddles. Good teams execute. Having veterans helps. Our Boston Celtics sit at 4-8 instead of 7-5 because they are young and learning and making mistakes. Try not to focus on the standings. At least they’re giving themselves a chance to make mistakes that matter in the 4th quarter against good teams.

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