The Boston Celtics were down by two with three seconds to play in Toronto last month, not an ideal situation coming out of a timeout, but it was nevertheless a chance to win the game.
The Celtics called a sideout play with options that included getting the ball back to inbounder Rajon Rondo going toward the basket. Instead, the play crumbled almost immediately and Boston ended up with its three primary late-game options -- Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green -- all about 40 feet from the basket after the inbounds. Sullinger put the ball on the ground -- he really had no other option -- and threw up a desperate running 3-pointer that slammed off the glass as the Celtics endured another narrow defeat.
The moment highlights Boston’s late-game dilemma. The 2013-14 Celtics have hung around in plenty of games this season, but they’ve also played from behind often and -- outside of Green’s memorable 3-pointer in Miami -- rarely have been able to make big shots in clutch moments.
On Monday, we detailed Boston’s struggles in close games, including a 14-32 mark in tilts in which the team led or trailed by five points during the final five minutes. As a team, the Celtics have struggled to generate consistent offense in clutch situations, and a close examination of individual late-game performances hammers home the team’s lack of a consistent go-to presence this season.
The Celtics have leaned hard on Green, Sullinger and Rondo, but those players, who used to be the third or fourth options at the end of games when the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were around, have struggled to be the focal points this season.
You can give them all a pass in one form or another. Green has actually been one of the most clutch players in the NBA in recent seasons; Sullinger is still a second-year player with only 117 games of experience; and Rondo is working his way back from ACL surgery.
But even Sullinger acknowledged he has to be better.
“I’ve missed a lot of shots at the end of the games, throughout the season, that could have either put us up by three or put us up by two,” he admitted. “I’ve got to learn how to win basketball games when I have the chance to knock down those open shots.”
Sullinger was asked if that’s something that players have to learn through experience at the NBA level.
“It’s just you have to be prepared to take that big shot,” he said. “And when that opportunity comes for you, you catch the ball, you don’t tense up, you act like you've done it before.”
This isn’t just a last-second issue. The Celtics as a team have often tensed up late in the fourth quarter. Just look at the team’s individual shooting percentages in the last five minutes of games within five points:
Who'dathunk the Celtics would miss the no-conscience shooting of Jordan Crawford so much? Percentage-wise, he was Boston’s best late-game shooter this season (and by a large margin). The team’s five primary starters occupy the bottom five spots on that list, combining to shoot a mere 29.4 percent (58-of-197). It’s easy to see why Boston has struggled to win close games.
Asked about the reasons for Boston’s late-game struggles, Rondo shrugged and offered, “I don’t know.”
Pressed on whether it was offensive execution, he added, “It’s not just one end of the floor. It’s both ends. Not being able to get stops, then some nights there’s times when we can’t put the ball in the basket. It varies each night. It’s not one particular thing.”
That’s true. While Boston shoots just 34.2 percent as a team in the final five minutes of five-point games -- second worst in the league behind only Milwaukee (30.1) -- opponents shoot 43.7 percent, the fourth highest mark in the league. The Celtics are not getting it done on either end of the court and that’s putting additional pressure on the offensive end.
But Boston’s offensive woes might be more glaring. Just look at the team’s individual performance in the final minute of one-possession games this season:
Boston’s shooting percentage drops to 27.5 percent as a team in those situations, including a mere 10.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc. The Celtics are not making enough shots to give themselves a consistent chance to win games. Opponents are shooting 37 percent, leaving Boston in the bottom 10 for defense in close late-game scenarios.
Asked if it’s tougher to execute down the stretch, Rondo offered, “It’s tough playing in the NBA.”
He was pressed on whether talent is more important in those moments.
“No, I don’t think talent is more important,” Rondo said. “It’s just execution, pretty much execution on both ends of the floor is the key for us.”
Coach Brad Stevens was quick to list off memorable positive late-game moments for many of his players, but admitted his team needed to be better in those situations.
Of course, Stevens noted that it would be easier on his team if it avoided getting in positions where it had to fight back late in the games so often.
“The tough part is, when you’re playing down three in all those situations instead of tied, or instead of up one, those type of things,” Stevens said. “Hopefully in the last five games maybe we can add that to the list of things that we got better at.”