Celtics-Wizards: A Classic Case Of System Vs. Talent

BOSTON (CBS) — At this stage, we hold these truths to be self-evident: the Celtics have better coaching, more structure. The Wizards have more talent and athleticism. So those of who believe in Celtics coach Brad Stevens and the Celtics way of doing things now have their case study.

What wins out?

For the second time in four days, the Celtics were run out of our nation’s capital on Sunday, obliterated in a 121-102 loss to the Washington Wizards that once again proved what the Celtics are – or, more importantly, what they are not. The Celtics are not, especially fast, athletic or, for that matter, skilled, which is not say that they lack those qualities entirely.

But the truth? The Wizards have more skill and more athleticism than the Celtics do, and the Wizards are relying on it to win. Washington’s philosophy against the Celtics is as simple as can be – force turnovers and run in the other direction – and the Celtics are absolutely, positively helpless to stop it because they simply cannot keep up.

“One thing is if you turn the ball over against these guys, you’d prefer to drop-kick it into the stands so that at least you could set your defense,” Stevens told reporters after the game. “Their attack in transition killed us.”

Here’s a list of the Celtics possessions during Washington’s fateful 26-0 run – yes, you read that correctly, 26-0 – that tied this Eastern Conference semifinal series at 2-2 and left the Celtics sucking the Wizards’ exhaust fumes.

* Isaiah Thomas turnover
* Jae Crowder 3-point miss, Al Horford 17-foot miss, shot clock violation
* Shot clock violation
* Thomas 7-foot miss
* Crowder 3-point miss
* Thomas turnover
* Avery Bradley 3-point miss
* Bradley turnover
* Marcus Smart turnover
* Thomas offensive foul
* Thomas turnover

Following the game, Thomas lamented the physicality with which the Wizards were allowed to play, which may or may not be a fair gripe. But that’s not the point. The point is that the Celtics cracked when the opponents turned up the pressure – specifically on Thomas, which highlighted the Celtics’ lack of skill and athleticism.

Think about it: when you get right down to it, other than Thomas, who on the Celtics can dribbled under pressure? During the Washington run, five Celtics possessions ended with turnovers committed in the flow of play – meaning no whistle for a shot-clock violation or offensive foul – which sent the Wizards busting toward the opposing hoop as if they were leaving the gates at Churchill Downs. Three others ended with a shot clock violation or offensive foul, though those can actually be less hurtful because there is always (or usually) an accompanying whistle.

All in all, the Celtics attempted five shots during the stretch: three 3-pointers, a 17-footer by Horford and 7-footer by Thomas. Add it all up and the team’s flaws were all part of the equation:

* A shortage of people who can handle the ball under pressure;
* Inconsistent shooting;
* Bad decision-making

No here’s the question: what can Stevens, already heralded in these parts as a boy genius, do to fix it?

Remember: even in the Chicago series, the Celtics had stretches where they were getting run out of the gym and resorted to an ill-conceived stretch of 3-pointers to stem the tide. This may be Stevens’ preferred “style,” but it’s death when the ball doesn’t go in. This is compounded by the fact that the Celtics really don’t have any great shooters, particularly when Thomas is forced to give the ball up.

Know what Bradley shot in the two games at Washington? He was 5-of-17 overall (29.4 percent), including 2-of-9 (22.2 percent) from 3-point distance. He did not attempt a free throw. Meanwhile, Crowder went 6-for-19 (31.6 percent) and just 2–of-7 (28.6 percent) from long range, which just goes to show you that playoff basketball is different than regular season basketball. In Game 4, he went to the line for just two attempts.

Maybe those guys are who Thomas is talking about when he said the following: “You’ve got to step into it and shoot it like you made three in a row. This is not the time to be shook. It’s not the time to shy away from the opportunity. It’s the time to take advantage of it. So if you’re open, we’re expecting you to make it.”

So how does all of this relate to Stevens? Well, if he’s as good as everyone seems to suggest he is, the Celtics could benefit from some poise under duress. For starters, would it kill them to go inside for a hoop or two when the opponent starts running downhill? Certainly Horford has enough of a post-up game for the Celtics to try. Ditto for Kelly Olynyk.

Instead, the Celtics shoot from long range with mediocre shooters, resulting in long rebounds that turn an 8-0 run or 10-0 run into a 22- or 26-point avalanche. Instead of slowing the game down, the Celtics kept speeding it up. Stevens called one timeout during the stretch, after the Wizards scored 11 straight. They scored 15 more before he called time again.

So how does Stevens combat this? Good question. Certainly, having the team’s best shooters on the floor with Thomas would help. (You can decide who those are on your own time, but something like Bradley, Crowder, Horford and Olynyk or – gulp – Jonas Jerebko would be a start.) In the end, none of it will matter if the Celtics don’t make shots, though it would be wise for Stevens to focus on why the Celtics are missing first.

The good news? Game 5 is on Wednesday. The Celtics have an extra day to figure things out. Their coach and structure versus the Wizards athleticism and talent.

May the better approach win.

More from Tony Massarotti
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