The Celtics’ late-season swoon is becoming harder and harder to understand — and to watch

Forsberg: The Celtic slump in the postseason is becoming increasingly difficult to explain – and to observe originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics have become a chore.

The same team that battled through early-season adversity to be at the top of the NBA with an insanely likeable line-up is now routinely fumbling away at double-digit leads and saving some of its craziest plays for crucial late-game moments.

On Saturday night he played the second night of a consecutive tournament without three starters in Utah. The Celtics gambled away a 19-point lead and missed a couple of chances to steal a win in the last few seconds. The loss dropped Boston to third in the Eastern Conference while rivals Milwaukee and Philadelphia shot forward while finding their late-season grooves.

Jayson Tatum collapses. Robert Williams is hurt. Much of what plagues Boston could be alleviated if either of those two things changed. But it hasn’t been pretty waiting for Tatum to find his trademark late-season groove and Williams to work his way back from a hamstring strain.

Celtics officially claim playoff berth for ninth straight season

Since Williams limped away against Brooklyn on March 3, the Celtics have snuffed out four double-digit leads on headslapping losses to underdog competition, then switched intensity while losing to the lowly Rockets as part of this current six-game road trip.

Perhaps this is all the more staggering given that a year ago the Celtics were the ones who threw a furious second-half upswing and carried their best basketball into the postseason.

This year we’re pining for the team that started the season 21-5 while playing at historic levels on offense. Boston is 28-18 as of Dec. 10 with an offense ranked 15th in the NBA.

Even as they started with a first loss to Golden State in a rematch in the Finals in December, this team still found a way to win ugly. On January 21, the Celtics had the best record in basketball, a 4.5 game lead over the 76ers and a 5.5 game lead over the Bucks.

Boston has been 14-11 since then and has slipped behind both the Bucks (21-3 by that range) and the Sixers (18-6) in the East standings. The Celtics play both teams as part of the 10 remaining games of the regular season over a six-day period.

The Celtics suffered heavy losses, but Saturday made a strong case for the lunatics. playing without williams, Al Horford and Marcus Smart certainly complicated things. But Boston got completely unbound in the second half and some questionable late-game decisions compounded the team’s late-game troubles.

head coach Joe Mazzulla, now 7-6 since removing the interim tag before All-Star Weekend coaching, is in the spotlight due to Boston’s inability to finish games. He doesn’t deserve all the blame here, as he’s not one to throw lazy 3-pointers on one end and fail to unwrap the other, although he may need to strongly remind his players that there must be more sustained efforts to avoid shall be forfeited.

But Mazzulla has some blind spots that took center stage on Saturday. This includes:

Lack of Derrick White at crucial moments

The Celtics have played 162 minutes of crunch-time basketball – points within five points, last five minutes. White, who was Boston’s third-best player this season, was on the floor 55.4 of those minutes (34.2 percent). Boston has played 60 minutes of overtime this season and White has spent 16.3 minutes (27.2 percent) on the field.

With three starter-level point guards on the list if you add Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, it’s certainly difficult to find time for all three players in key positions. Mazzulla understandably leaned heavily on Smart and Brogdon in the late game commercials.

But White’s fourth-quarter DNP on Saturday night was nothing short of stunning. Playing without three starters, including Smart, the Celtics could not find at any time for white? Yes, the Celtics needed size, but White is one of the team’s best decision-makers and can often negate the size he gives up with his basketball IQ. He needs to be more grounded regardless of matchups.

Of the 166 players who have appeared in at least 20 crunch time games this season, White ranks ninth in the NBA with a net rating of +20.1. Smart is at +10.3 while Brogdon is at +0.3 in their crunch time minutes.

Mazzulla has recently admitted he needs to lean more on White in these moments, and yet White continues to be on the bench in big points.

No more playing games for Jaylen Brown in key places

Since the All-Star break Jaylen Brown was Boston’s most consistent and efficient goalscorer. As Tatum weathers a rare slump in March, the masked Brown has put the Celtics’ offense on his shoulders.

But no matter how good Brown is, it feels like the final sets are always meant for Tatum. On Saturday night, Tatum didn’t have a single field goal in the second half, and yet both Boston-designed plays were written for Tatum in the last 35 seconds.

Rarely will we argue with putting the ball in your best player’s hands when the game is balanced. But the Celtics have two superstars and they rarely take advantage of that. Tatum draws an inordinate amount of attention in late-game situations, and Boston has failed to capitalize on this by consistently developing games that use Tatum as a decoy.

Boston’s end-of-game sets, which always seem to start with Tatum 50 feet from the basket in backcourt lately, have generally lacked inspiration.

Too much 2-for-1

Mazzulla loves math. And teams should definitely strive to take advantage of the opportunity for extra ownership. But the Celtics too often rush into late-quarter action and settle for bad looks just for an opportunity to acquire additional possessions.

Worse, the Celtics were routinely burned by opponent buzzer-beaters who, after Boston stormed through possessions, usually burn the Celtics at the last second. The end of the quarter was generally a sore point for Boston, and the team has had to prioritize quality over quantity more often.

Despite all the doom and gloom as Boston suffers these insane losses, they still control their own destiny. Wins against Milwaukee and/or Philadelphia could go a long way toward determining where Boston ends up in the seedings. The Celtics are always a hot tatum streak away from looking like the best team in basketball again.

But when Tatum collapses, it accentuates all the little troubles that have sworn for this team. It puts the spotlight on a coach who can handle many of the bumps that most first-year coaches face (although most don’t carry the championship expectations that Mazzulla inherited).

Boston needs to focus better before the postseason begins. Mazzulla needs to be clearer about his rotations and playcalling in a playoff period where coaches are really being judged (and where he’ll be playing chess against more experienced coaches).

The Celtics haven’t had a mojo for a while. The mood isn’t nearly as good as it used to be. There’s a lot to discover and only 10 games left to play.

It’s been a rough time lately but a lot will be forgiven and forgotten when the Celtics can capitalize on what has made them great. This team urgently needs to figure out how to play more focused, harder and most importantly, with more joy.

Because it’s not there for the team right now – or the viewer.

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