Why the Celtics keep falling short in the clutch: Jayson Tatum shot selection, slow offense remain issues

The Celtics have been arguably the most talented team in the league for over two seasons, but they keep on falling short in the biggest moments.

Boston was upset by Golden State in six games in the 2022 Finals, upset by Miami in seven games in the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals and lost to Indiana in the In-Season Tournament Quarterfinals on Monday despite being the favorites once again.

More concerning was the way that the Celtics lost in all three of those big moments. They have had the same late-game offensive issues for years now. 

Here is where the Celtics continue to experience problems during winning time.

MORE: Rick Carlisle built the best offense in history by trusting Tyrese Haliburton

Why the Celtics keep falling short in the clutch

The offense is moving too slowly

The contrast between the Pacers and Celtics in terms of pace could not have been more stark at the end of their game on Monday.

Part of that was gameplan — head coach Joe Mazzulla did not want to get into a track meet and play into the Pacers’ hands. But while the Pacers ran the ball up for quick scores, the Celtics were way too methodical, leaving themselves almost no margin for error with a short clock. 

Over and over, Boston walked the ball up the court, set up its actions slowly and had 10 to 14 seconds to get a decent look at the basket. 

The Celtics have too often gone to this passive strategy at the end of games when trying to protect a lead. Making things even worse, they were trailing for most of the fourth quarter on Monday and in dire need of speeding up to get back into the game. For whatever reason, they can’t seem to run their normal offense in the last five minutes of big games. 

Too many Jayson Tatum isolations

In addition to playing slowly, much of the late-game offense involved getting the ball to Jayson Tatum and letting him isolate. 

Tatum is a good one-on-one scorer and a tough shot-maker. He ranks in the 82nd percentile of isolation scorers, according to NBA Stats. But the Celtics have a ton of good offensive weapons. They can find better shots than these to close games:

Mazzulla will get the lion’s share of the blame, but he is trying things to get his team out of the mud. With five minutes left, he directed a play from the sideline to get Al Horford a dunk. Two minutes later, he noticed the Celtics’ offense bogging down and called a timeout, setting up a quick-hitter to get Jaylen Brown another dunk. He can’t call a timeout every play, though.

When left to their own devices, the players usually revert to throwing it to Tatum and letting him cook. 

The ball needs to touch the paint

The criticism that the Celtics settle for too many jump shots has been out there for a long time. They are a good 3-point shooting team, so in some respects that strategy makes sense. But too often, rather than driving and kicking to set up a clean look, they are settling for contested pull-up 3s at the end of games.

The Celtics rank 28th in drives per game, per NBA Stats. They are 23rd in the percentage of shots taken at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. Both of those numbers need to go way up for them to have a more sustainable crunch-time offense. Despite the league-wide shift towards shooting 3s, layups are still the best shot in the game. They have a whole host of players who can get downhill to attack the basket.

The one silver lining for the Celtics is that Kristaps Porzingis missed their game on Monday. Porzingis was supposed to help with those crunch-time issues, giving them another offensive weapon to use down the stretch of games.

The fact that Porzingis missed a pivotal game is a worry in and of itself, though. The team will need good health from him when it matters and a break from the bad habits that have plagued them for years in order to fulfill the high expectations set for them this season. 

Source : ESPN.com

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