The Boston Celtics and their inexcusable 4th quarter struggles

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images) /

The Boston Celtics used to be one of the most dangerous teams in the fourth quarter.

With Isaiah Thomas, the self proclaimed “King of the Fourth” leading the way, Boston would constantly play their best with the game on the line, which helped them become the overachieving team we came to know and love during the beginning of the Brad Stevens era. It’s safe to say those time felt like the beginning of the next era of Boston Celtics basketball.

It’s also safe to say those feelings were blatantly incorrect. If you watch tape of those teams led by Thomas and the current iteration of the Celtics, you will find little to no resemblance. And that’s not a good thing. Those teams had fight and a desire to win games, while the 2021-22 Celtics roll over and die seemingly every single time they take the court.

Those overachieving Celtics squads made their money in the fourth quarter. The underachieving current version of the Boston Celtics constantly throw away games in the fourth quarter. It’s a mind-boggling issue, but the C’s are one of the worst teams in the NBA in the fourth quarter this season, and it’s resulted in a lot of winnable games being lost for this team. Why exactly is this team so bad with the game on the line? Let’s take a closer look.

Analyzing the Boston Celtics 4th quarter struggles

Let’s start with a teamwide overview before jumping into more some individual concerns. The Celtics overall plus/minus in the fourth quarter this season is -1.2, so they are basically losing the final frame of the game by one point on a nightly basis. They rank in the bottom half of the league in pretty much every stat you can think of, including total scoring (21st), field goal percentage (26th), three point percentage (27th), and assists per fourth quarter (26th).

In terms of offensive and defensive rating, Boston also sits in the bottom half of the league in both of these categories (21st and 25th, respectively). Their net rating in the quarter though, is -5.7, which is 27th in the league. Basically what that means is that over 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, the Celtics would manage to lose by an average on 5.7 points. Somehow that isn’t the worst rating in the league.

So what’s the deal; why do the Celtics just crumble and die in the fourth quarter? For starters, their shot selection has been worse than normal in the final frame. Their expected field goal percentage (the percent of shots reasonably expected to be made) is 49.3 percent. So the Celtics aren’t even expected to hit half the shots they take in the fourth quarter.

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Boston’s defense also takes a hit in the fourth as well. Their overall defensive rating on the season is 107.3, which is 5th in the league. But in the fourth that number skyrockets up to 112.3. It probably doesn’t help that their lack of offense often forces them to play against the fastbreak more than they would like to in the fourth, but even then, such a drastic drop off is a sign for concern.

It’s clear the Boston Celtics struggles are abundant. But who is to blame for these issues? For starters, the coaching staff, primarily head coach Ime Udoka, should be getting some fingers pointed at them. They aren’t the ones that go out and play, but they haven’t been putting their players in the best position to succeed all season long, and it’s becoming increasingly irritating to watch.

Let’s take last night’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers as an example. Boston found themselves down by one point with 13 seconds left in the game, so all they had to do was score a basket, right? Nope. Udoka draws up a play to free up Jayson Tatum at three, and he settles for an off balance step-back three with six seconds still on the shot clock, which Tatum ends up missing. Portland goes down and hits free throws, and the game is effectively over.

Udoka’s call to get Tatum a three in a game they are trailing by just one point is idiotic in it’s own right. But when you take into consideration that Tatum had hit just one of his previous 21 three point attempts (now 22 for those keeping track), it’s becomes even more heinous. The Celtics had succeeded in running pick-and-rolls against Portland’s center, Jusuf Nurkic, all night long, and a simple play revolving around that would have resulted in a much better shot.

Now Udoka’s playcall was poor, but in fairness, Tatum didn’t take a shot that was beyond his skillset. We have seen him hit all sorts of off-dribble threes throughout his career, but Tatum’s overall shooting has declined this season. He’s now shooting just 31.1 percent from behind the arc, which is shockingly bad. For comparison’s sake, the ever inconsistent Marcus Smart is shooting 30.4 percent from three this season.

For the most part, Tatum has been pretty much the same in the fourth quarter as every other quarter. But he fails to assert himself when the pressure mounts, and that’s hurt the Boston Celtics all season long. When defenses ratchet up the pressure on him or throw two bodies his way, he can’t figure out how to score. Tatum’s is a good player, but in order for him to become the star everyone thinks he is, he’s going to have to figure out how to close out games at some point.

The problem is Tatum is getting virtually no help from any of his teammates, and when it comes to the fourth quarter, the includes Jaylen Brown. Brown has been nearly invisible in the final frame of action, and whether it be him just standing in the corner uninvolved, or him getting the ball and forcing shots, Brown has been a nightmare in the fourth quarter this season.

Brown is shooting just 39.4 percent from the field in the fourth quarter, including a hideous 26.1 percent from behind the arc. For reference, Brown’s percentages on the season are 45.6 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from three, so those are pretty steep drops.

The problem with Brown appears to be his shot selection. He’s missing shots in the fourth yes, but his expected field goal percentage in that frame is just 43.8 percent, so it’s not as if he’s just missing open looks. He’s usually trying to solve the offense’s struggles on his own, but he typically just ends up making things worse with the poor shots he’s been taking.

Similar to Tatum, defenses really key in on Brown in the fourth quarter, and while Tatum has made an effort to get his teammates involved, Brown simply hasn’t. Brown is only averaging 0.5 assists in the fourth quarter, which is far too low for a player who gets as many touches as he does. So many times, Brown will drive to the rim and the defense will collapse inward. Rather than pass the ball back out to an open teammate, he just goes up with the shot anyways.

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The Boston Celtics fourth quarter woes have destroyed them this season. Off the top of my head, I can think of crushing losses at the hands of the Trail Blazers, the Chicago Bulls, and Milwaukee Bucks where this team absolutely crumbled in the fourth quarter. The sad part is, there are more than just those three.

In order to get better in the fourth, the Celtics need to realize the situational difference in the game. You cannot just fire up shots late in the game, especially when the game is close. Generating quality looks is of the utmost importance, but nobody on Boston’s sideline seems to understand that. Whether it be players or coaches, someone has to step up and lead the charge in the fourth, or else the losses are going to continue to pile up.