Boston Celtics continue to be brokers of heartbreak (and patience)

Jan 6, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) celebrates with forward Julius Randle (30) and guard Alec Burks (18) after making a game-winning three point basket against the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 6, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) celebrates with forward Julius Randle (30) and guard Alec Burks (18) after making a game-winning three point basket against the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports /

If a team was solely judged on fast starts, the Boston Celtics would have a record of 36-3 at the moment.

Okay. That’s overdoing it but life on the court certainly seems like that for Boston in the last month. Huge leads out of the gate, with excellent basketball on both sides of the court, seem to give way to a complete letdown by game’s end.

This season’s edition of the heartbreak Celtics were at it again on Thursday night. This time it was courtesy of 25-point first-half lead blown by the Celtics as Boston fell to the New York Knicks 108-105 on a buzzer-beater from RJ Barrett.

It’s all-too-familiar feeling. The night prior, Jaylen Brown missed a game-tying layup in the final seconds as Boston lost to San Antonio, 99-97. And these close games have become a season-long theme in Beantown for the Celtics.

Boston Celtics: A lack of closing out games

Close losses — and close games in general — have plagued Boston in 2021-22. It’s a mixture of many things contributing to this problem, primarily on the offensive side of the court. Bad shooting and a general lack of efficiency in the fourth quarter have led to woes for the Celtics.

Take the most recent loss against the Knicks for example. The Celtics entered the quarter with a 10-point lead. Boston had managed to weather an early third quarter run by the Knicks by responding with one of their own until the final minutes of the frame.

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Energized, the Knicks carried momentum into the fourth, where Boston’s offense continued to struggle. Marcus Smart was one of the many culprits, missing no less than three open 3-pointers from basically the same spot on the floor.

There was very little flow and at one point Jayson Tatum scored 11 straight for the Celtics as he kept this team in the game. He had 36 points and 9 assists, which could have been even higher because late in the game he was finding open teammates that just couldn’t connect.

Brown was also ineffective for much of the second-half.

All of this contributed to Boston’s 11th loss of the season by five points or less. Even in games they are winning, it’s usually not without struggle, allowing teams to claw back from huge deficits. Which is the exact opposite of what happened the first 20 games or so of the season, in which Boston was having huge moments after halftime to pickup victories.

Despite fourth quarter struggles, the Celtics actually have a 15-6 record when they take a lead into the final frame. Respectable, yes, but the losses have been mounting as of late.

Big halftime leads have been a mixed bag as well, with Boston going 6-5 in which they are holding at ten-point lead or more entering the break. This is a result partially because of one thing: living and dying by the three-pointer.

Woes of the Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics need to realize they are not a three-point shooting team. Yes, they can get locked in from deep, much like they were in the second quarter against the Knicks. At one point, the team was 10-15 from deep but ended 17-45.

Still a respectable number and the Celtics are capable of hitting nearly 40 percent. But there’s no player that strikes fear into opponents by consistently hitting 4 or 5 out of 10 from deep.

It’s been a weakness for the Celtics for more than a few years now. Players that were drafted to fix that problem, like Carsen Edwards and Aaron Nesmith, never panned out or have struggled to find consistent minutes.

The player who scored the Celtics for 41 points last night, Evan Fournier, briefly filled that role last season.

Assists and ball movement, at first glance, seemed to be a huge difference between wins and losses for Boston. And while isolation plays can get this team stuck, the gap in assist totals is not as big as initially thought.

In victories, Boston averages 23.8 per game and in losses, 21.7.

Not the biggest thing but two assists more could have made difference in turning the “Ls” into “W’s” in at least half of those 11 close losses.

Defense was weakness in the the season’s first 10-15 games but has been solid for the most part. And has the Celtics get healthy, it’s only getting better. A huge factor is Robert Williams, who has been locking down the middle. He had seven blocked shots against the Knicks, giving him 20 over the last five games.

Williams and the defense are only one key to Boston finding success moving forward, which they can do. They need to harness the energy and efficiency from the first and second quarters for a full 48 minutes. This means finding players who will buy into a team-effort, even if they are only asked to contribute ten-minutes per game. When you have a team committed to this common goal, then finishing out games will arrive with more ease.

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There is too much talent on this team to not be winning close games. As they get healthier and rotations finally become set in place, turning things around can be done. If not, an entire retooling could be in order. It’s not necessarily what I want to see — because this team can win — but it’s maybe one that’s desired if Boston can’t start making the third quarter something other than allowing opponents to get back — or seal — a game.