As the Boston Celtics began wrecking the league in the final months of the regular season, their dominance obscured what had been one of their biggest pain points: clutch offense.
On Jan. 22, the Celtics were 23-24, with a 9-17 record in games within five points in the last five minutes…and a 14-7 record otherwise. They then turned their season around, going from 10th to 2nd in the Eastern Conference 28-7 in their last 35 games.
The Celtics had both the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense in the league during those 11 weeks, and outperformed their opponents with a staggering 15.5 points per 100 possessions.
But by beating their opponents so decisively (20 of the 28 wins were in double digits, 15 by 20 points or more), the Celtics didn’t really solve their clutch problems. They’ve been just 4-5 in games that have been within five for the last five of the last 11 weeks and have had just 79 points on 90 offensive possessions (87.8 per 100). Only the New York Knicks had a worse clutch offense at this track.
As such, the Celtics finished the season with a 38-9 record (.809, best in the league) in non-clutch games and a 13-22 record (.371, second-worst) in clutch games. That was the third largest difference in this regard in the 26 years for which we have clutch data.
The Celtics (up-7.4) were 1.9 points per 100 possessions better than the Golden State Warriors (up-5.5) in the regular season, but the Western Conference champions have home field advantage this series by having two won more games. Fittingly, the Warriors won the two teams’ close regular-season encounter while the Celtics won the blowout.
Things went uphill in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics swept the Brooklyn Nets but all four games were within five points in the last five minutes. And in those four games, Boston scored 25 points in 21 handball games (119 out of 100), with Jayson Tatum’s buzzer-beater in Game 1 being the highlight.
Brooklyn, of course, had one of the worst defenses in the playoffs. Since that series, the Celtics’ postseason clutch offense has fallen below one point per possession (89.1 per 100 through Sunday). Offensive late-game struggles at the end of Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals almost had them crushing a 3-2 series lead and going into the offseason with a ton of regrets.
Such regret remains a possibility, especially after Boston squandered another fourth-quarter lead in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday. After taking a five-point lead with 7 1/2 minutes left, the Celtics have had just two (six points) on their last 12 possessions and gone scoreless on all six possessions that qualified as a ‘clutch’ (because they came in). the last five minutes with the result within five).
It’s not like the Celtics are having an identity crisis. They know who they are and how to attack offensively, spreading the ground and using weak defenders in actions against Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But whatever the reason, they often struggled to get through the stretch of tight games.
Here’s how things went wrong for the Celtics (and right for the Warriors) late in Game 4.
1. Defense of the screen
Flare screens (for multiple players) have become a big part of the Celtics offense this series. Early in the fourth quarter, Tatum received an open 3 when Andrew Wiggins was caught under a fluorescent screen and Jordan Poole made a late substitution.
With a chance to build on that five-point lead, Robert Williams III set a flare for Tatum midway through the fourth race that flattened Andrew Wiggins. But Tatum didn’t get an open shot because Kevon Looney was there and shut down Williams. Tatum controlled the baseline, Poole provided timely assistance and Klay Thompson made the switch to Derrick White, forcing Tatum to back down and reset:
Marcus Smart set a screen to get Stephen Curry to defend Tatum, but Curry was able to stay ahead of Tatum’s initial drive and force a hard step back and a shot clock injury:
It’s possible Tatum could attack faster or get off the ball quicker after the catch when Poole came to the rescue, but the skip pass to Brown in the far corner would have been difficult for Looney.
2. The Thompson stops
Thompson fought his shot (10-for-33) through the first two games of the finals. But he’s been better in the last two games and had 13 points in the second half on Sunday while making several big plays at the other end of the floor.
Thompson reduced that five-point deficit to three with a hard turnaround fadeaway in the suit. And he let it follow with a terrific defensive game.
While Wiggins was expecting a Tatum curl from a smart cross screen, Tatum sliced off the back door, leaving his defender in the dust. But Thompson saw what was happening, knocked out Brown in the corner and tackled Tatum on the edge without fouling:
Two possessions later (#1 clutch possession for the Celtics), Brown turned down a screen and attempted to knock Thompson out of dribble. But Thompson stuck with him, forcing a tough runner that came out:
Later in the fourth (clutch ownership #5), Thompson completely shut down a Brown isolation, keeping him in the lead and not leaving him enough room for a step back jumper. Brown kicked the ball to Horford, but his 3-pointer was a little rushed when Looney finished:
With the Celtics down six (no clutch possession), Horford took a corner 3 on the following trip down the floor. And after a layup by Looney (when the Celtics got the ball out of Curry’s hands), the Celtics had their sixth and final possession of Game 4.
Again, Thompson was most responsible for getting the stop. Brown sliced through the back door and Smart squeezed through a pass, but Thompson stayed with him and (with some help from Wiggins) forced a turnover:
There were more vulnerable defenders – Curry and (sometimes) Poole – on the floor when Thompson got those stops and it seems the Celtics picked the wrong man to attack.
3. Help, recover and contest
When Curry elbowed a runner with just under four minutes left to put the Warriors to three, the Celtics called a timeout and set up a play (No. 3 clutch possession) to put Curry in action against Tatum.
But as he accepted a handoff from Derrick White, Tatum paused for a split second. Wiggins got around White and Draymond Green pinched Brown to prevent a Tatum drive. Wiggins then helped out with a Brown drive and quickly recovered to challenge Tatum’s 3-pointers:
On the following possession (clutch possession #4) it was Green who did the same. Thompson (a possession prior to the Iso above) stayed ahead of a Brown isolation, but Green helped with the color. Brown kicked to Smart and Green tried hard to make the shot as best he could:
Brown got the offensive rebound but Wiggins stayed ahead of a Tatum spin move and Smart missed another 3 against another green contest.
4. Sometimes slow and stagnant
The Celtics’ clutch problems on Friday weren’t as self-inflicted as their problems in Game 6 of the Conference Finals. As mentioned above, there was good defensive play/action from all six warriors (even Poole!) playing in the clutch period.
Note, however, that on their first possession (Brown turned down the screen and missed the runner), there was only 11 seconds left on the shot clock before the Celtics ran some to gain an advantage because they were so slow to get in to get their offense :
Curry was incredible in Game 4, but the difference in those games was almost entirely on Boston’s offense, who averaged 125.5 points per 100 possessions in their two wins and just 95.4 points in their two losses. Turnovers and rebounds were a part of it, but shooting is the most important aspect of this game.
Interestingly, in the first 12 seconds of the shot clock, the Celtics shot only slightly more effectively on their wins (66.9% effective field goal percentage) than on their losses (63.7%). The much bigger difference in shooting was in the last 12 seconds of the shot clock: 54.1% wins, 35.7% losses.
Running late is important, and it’s also important to avoid these late-time situations. The Celtics also had multiple possessions earlier in Game 4 where they just weren’t very goal oriented and settled for poor shots.
5. Is there more clutch time to come?
In four games, the Warriors have surpassed the Celtics by a single point. It’s now a three-game streak and chances are at least one more game will be at the end of the stretch.
Amazingly, the Celtics are two wins from a championship who haven’t really resolved their late-game offensive problems yet. Of course, the Milwaukee Bucks had similar troubles last season and then went 3-0 in games that were within five of their last five and scored 25 points on 17 possessions (147 per 100) in the Finals. And that was against the team — Phoenix — which is otherwise 65-23 (.739) in clutch games over the past two years.
Even more so than this series, it feels like anything could happen in the next seven days. Game 5 is Monday (9 p.m. ET, ABC) in San Francisco.
John Schuhmann is a senior statistics analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, his archive can be found here and Follow him on Twitter.
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