John Tomase

Breaking down Celtics' last-second shots reveals one clear issue

The Celtics need better execution in clutch situations late in games.

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The Celtics have got the first 47 and three-quarters minutes pretty much figured out on a nightly basis. Now they just need to address the final 15 seconds.

Even the NBA's greatest juggernauts must eventually win close games in the playoffs, and how a team handles those situations can be the difference between raising a banner and hanging your head. Just ask the 73-win Warriors of LeBron James chase-down fame.

The Celtics can run anyone off the floor, as they demonstrated in breathtaking fashion during Sunday's 52-point blowout of Golden State. But their late-game execution still sputters too often, which was once again the case in Tuesday's aberrational loss to the Cavaliers.

The game will primarily be remembered for the Celtics blowing a 22-point lead in the final nine minutes and briefly turning the anonymous Dean Wade into Hall of Famer D-Wade during his 20-point fourth quarter outburst.

For all of their defensive lapses and wayward shooting, the Celtics still had a chance to win with 19 seconds left and the ball in Jayson Tatum's hands. But as has been the case too many times this year, their final shot was a low-percentage one.

They were nearly bailed out with a foul call, but Darius Garland's contact with Tatum's leg was overturned, wiping away Kristaps Porzingis's game-winning putback in the process. (Colleague Chris Forsberg breaks down that play in all of its 19-dribble misery and some of the larger issues it portends here).

If it feels like the Celtics never get a good shot in the final seconds of regulation or overtime to tie or take the lead, it's because that's pretty much true. They're just 1-for-12 in such situations, and their lone make never even found the bottom of the basket, Detroit's Cade Cunningham called for an oh-so-close goaltend on a Tatum finger roll in December.

At least that was a layup. More typical are shots like Tuesday's, where the ball never left Tatum's hands before he took a Kobe Bryant-esque 17-foot fallaway. Tatum has also missed versions of that shot against the Pistons, Timberwolves, and Nuggets, and he's 1-for-7 in such scenarios overall. It might be the lowest-percentage attempt in his considerable arsenal, and yet it's invariably where the Celtics land with the game on the line.

Seriously, take a look for yourself.

Dec. 28 vs. Pistons
Jan. 10 vs. Timberwolves
Jan. 19 vs. Nuggets

They should know better, because this group's lone NBA Finals run was kickstarted by perhaps the best play of the Brown-Tatum Era, when everyone touched the ball before Tatum whirled past Kyrie Irving for a buzzer-beating layup against the Nets in the opener of the 2022 playoffs.

Head coach Joe Mazzulla should make that play mandatory viewing when the Celtics discuss late-game execution, because they're at their worst when they play isolation ball.

It hasn't stopped them from romping to the league's best record, but they should spend the next two months ensuring that it won't cost them their best shot at Banner 18, either.

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