Finals film study: Boston’s clutch-moment offense remains the Achilles’ heel

Steely ruthlessness: The Celtics often struggle to execute in close games.

When the Boston Celtics began to destroy the league in the final months of the regular season, their dominance overshadowed one of their biggest problems before that: the critical offense.

On Jan. 22, the Celtics were 23-24, 9-17 for games within five points in the final five minutes… 14-7 otherwise. That’s when they turned their season around, climbing from No. 10 in the East to No. 2 with a 28-7 run in their final 35 games.

The Celtics had the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense in those 11 weeks, outscoring opponents by an astonishing 15.5 points per 100 possessions.

But by beating opponents so decisively (20 of 28 wins in double figures and 15 of 20 or more), the Celtics haven’t really solved their key problems. Over the past 11 weeks, they’re 4-5 in 5 of the past 5 games and have just 79 points on 90 clutch possessions (87.8 points per 100 possessions). During that time, only the New York Knicks’ key offense was worse.

As a result, the Celtics finished the season with a 38-9 record in non-clutch games (0.809, the league’s best) and a 13-22 record in clutch games (0.371, second-worst). This is the third largest difference in this regard in the 26 years we have clutch data.

The Celtics (+7.4) outscored Golden State (+5.5) by 1.9 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, but the Western Conference champions have home-court advantage in this series as they win two more games . Fittingly, the Warriors won the two regular-season games in close quarters, while the Celtics won the blowout.

Things got better in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics swept the Brooklyn Nets but were within five in the final five minutes of all four games. In those four games, Boston scored 25 points on 21 clutch possessions (119 per 100), with Jayson Tatum’s first buzzer-beater being the highlight.

Brooklyn certainly has one of the worst defenses in the playoffs. Since that series, the Celtics’ key offense in the playoffs has fallen below one point per possession (89.1 points per 100 possessions as of Sunday). Offensive struggles late in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals nearly put them 3-2 in the series and headed into the offseason with a ton of regrets.

That regret remains, especially after Boston took the lead again in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday. After taking a five-point lead with 7 1/2 minutes left, the Celtics had just two points (six) on their final 12 possessions, and they were scoreless on all six (as they came in) the last five minutes, the score was within five).

It’s not like the Celtics have an identity crisis. They know who they are and how they want to play offense, opening up space and pitting weak defenders against Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But for whatever reason, they often struggle to execute in close play.

Here’s what went wrong with the Celtics (aka Warriors) late in Game 4…

1. Guard Signal Screen

Flash screens (for multiple players) have become a huge part of the Celtics offense in this series. Tatum had an open 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter when Andrew Wiggins was blocked by the torch and Jordan Poole was swapped out late.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Robert Williams III had a chance to build on a five-point lead and set up a flare screen for Tatum to level Andrew Wiggins. But Tatum didn’t have an open shot because Kevin Looney was on the floor, blocking Williams. Tatum opened the bottom line, Poole helped in time, and Klay Thompson was rotated to Derrick White, forcing Tatum to step back and reset:

Warrior Guard Signal Screen

Marcus Smart set up a screen for Stephen Curry to guard Tatum, but Curry was able to stay in front of Tatum’s initial tee shot and force him back hard and violated his shot time:

Stephen Curry defense

It’s possible that Tatum could attack quicker after receiving the ball, or get off the ball quicker when Poole came to help, but Brown’s skip pass in the opposite corner was a tough one for Rooney.


2. Thompson stops

Thompson’s shooting (10-for-33) has struggled in the first two games of the Finals. But he’s been better in the past two games, scoring 13 points in the second half on Sunday while making a couple of big plays on the other end of the field.

Thompson made a tough turnaround jumper in the paint to close the five-point gap to three. He then played great defense.

With Wiggins expecting Tatum to roll up from Smart’s cross, Tatum cut into the back door, leaving his defender in a bind. But Thompson saw what was going on, shutting down Brown in the corner and taking Tatum at the rim without a foul:

Klay Thompson defense

Two possessions later (No. 1 for the Celtics), Brown turned down a screen and hoped to beat Thompson off the dribble. But Thompson stayed with him and forced a tough runner out:

Klay Thompson defense

Late in the fourth quarter (key ball No. 5), Thompson completely shut down Brown’s isolation, keeping him up front and not giving him enough room for a step-back jumper. Brown kicked the ball to Horford, but his 3-pointer was a bit rushed, and Rooney restricted the area:

Klay Thompson defense

With the Celtics trailing by six points (not the key possession), Horford scored a corner 3 on the next possession. After Looney’s layup (when the Celtics took the ball away from Curry), the Celtics had their sixth and final clutch possession in Game 4.

Again, Thompson is most responsible for stopping. Brown cut the back door, Smart was able to squeeze the ball but Thompson stayed with him and (with Wiggins) forced the turnover:

Celtic turnover

When Thompson was blocked, and there were more vulnerable defenders on the floor — Curry and (sometimes) Poole — it seemed the Celtics had picked the wrong man to attack.


3. HELP, RECOVERY AND COMPETITION

When Curry hit a base runner from the elbow to give the Warriors a three-point lead with less than four minutes left, the Celtics called a timeout and worked out a game (clutch possession). No. 3) for Curry to make the move against Tatum.

But Tatum paused for a moment when he took the receiver from Derrick White. Wiggins bypassed White and Draymond Green pinched off Brown to prevent Tatum from breaking through. Wiggins then helped Brown drive and recover quickly to counter Tatum’s 3-pointer…

Andrew Wiggins Help and Recovery

The next possession (clutch 4) is Green doing the same thing. Thompson (one possession prior to the aforementioned iso) stayed in front of the Brown isolation, but Green provided help in the paint. Brown kicked the ball to Smart, and Green made a huge effort to counter the shot as much as possible…

Drayond Green Help and Recovery

Brown got the offensive rebound, but Wiggins stayed in front of Tatum’s spin and Smart missed another 3 against Green in the other game.


4. Sometimes slow and stagnant

The Celtics’ key questions on Friday weren’t as self-inflicted as they were in Game 6 of the conference finals. As mentioned above, all six Warriors (even Poole!) have great defensive performances/movements in the clutch.

But on their first clutch possession (Brown denied a screen and missed a runner), note that there’s only time left to shoot before the Celtics play any game designed to gain the edge 11 seconds because they were too slow to get into the offense…

Celtics slow setup

Curry was incredible in Game 4, but the difference in those games was almost entirely in Boston’s offense, scoring 125.5 points per 100 possessions in two wins and just 95.4 in two losses. Turnovers and rebounds are part of that, but shooting is the most important aspect of this game.

Interestingly, the Celtics’ shooting efficiency in the first 12 seconds of a game (66.9 percent effective field goal percentage) was only marginally higher than when they lost (63.7 percent). The bigger difference in their shots was in the final 12 seconds of their shot time: 54.1 percent winning and 35.7 losing.

Delayed execution is important, and it is also important to avoid those situations where execution is delayed. The Celtics also had multiple possessions early in Game 4, they just weren’t very purposeful and had to accept bad shots.


More clutch time to come?

Through four games, the Warriors lead the Celtics by one point. It’s a three-game series now, and there’s a good chance that at least one more game will end.

Surprisingly, the Celtics are just two wins away from the championship and haven’t really addressed their late-game offense. Of course, the Milwaukee Bucks had a similar problem last season, then went 3-0 in their final five or less games and scored 25 points in 17 clutch possessions in the Finals (147 per 100) . In the key games of the past two years, that was against the Phoenix team, otherwise it was 65-23 (0.739).

Even more than that series, it felt like anything could happen in the next 7 days. Game 5 is Monday (9 PM ET) in San Francisco.

John Schuhmann is a Senior Statistical Analyst at NBA.com.You can email him here, find his profile here, and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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