Chris Forsberg

White, Celtics ready to prove they can thrive in playoff crunch time

A lack of execution in crunch time is one potential obstacle on Boston's pursuit of Banner 18.

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There hasn’t been a whole lot to nitpick with the 2023-24 Boston Celtics.

They posted the best offensive rating in league history, finished with a net rating that was 4.4 points better than the next closest rival, and piled up 64 wins. A Celtics team that sometimes looked past inferior opponents in previous seasons did a much better job of keeping its foot on the gas pedal while racing away from the pack.

The Celtics even managed to keep their entire roster upright to the finish line of the season and should be at full strength when they tip off first-round play by hosting the to-be-determined 8th seed on Sunday afternoon at TD Garden.

About the only thing that might still gnaw at Celtics fans is the team’s inconsistencies at the end of games. Boston posted some of the best clutch numbers in the NBA this season, but even the players acknowledge that there is still room for growth, particularly when you consider the number of playoff games that tend to hinge on late-game possessions.

The Celtics know they must still prove themselves in those moments.

"I think that's just to be expected. Everybody's got to critique something and, until we prove it and prove it at the highest level, no one's gonna really care what we say,” said Derrick White, who tends to be a steadying presence in the crunchiest of crunch-time moments.

“We've just got a lot of different ways we can win, different people we can put in the action. [Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis], me, Jrue [Holiday]. You've got a lot of different options and it's having that variety. I think it would be fun just to pick on different matchups. What works? What doesn't work? And each game can be a little different, and that's the exciting part.”

The Celtics finished the season with the fourth best winning percentage in the clutch (63.6) while posting a 21-12 mark in any game that triggered the clutch criteria (score within five points, final five minutes). Boston’s +15.4 net rating in the clutch was fourth-best in the NBA. Alas, that doesn’t tell the whole story with a team that sometimes watched a double-digit lead dwindle before salting away a win in “clutch” time.

Boston was 14-12 in games that were one-score games in the final five minutes. That number further erodes to 8-12 in the 20 games where Boston’s opponent either tied the game, or led by as much as three in the final five minutes.

It should be noted that regular-season clutch performance is rarely indicative of postseason clutch success. During the 2021-22 regular season, before Boston’s march to the NBA Finals, the Celtics posted a 13-22 record in 35 regular-season clutch games, which was the second worst mark in the entire NBA. Boston’s seven clutch wins were the most that postseason, albeit playing an absurd 12 clutch games during a grind-heavy postseason run.

What gives Celtics players confidence that they will be ready for those moments this season?

"I'm confident just from the standpoint of [coach] Joe [Mazzulla] preparing us to be in those positions and then our guys being able to take information and execute it,” said Al Horford. "Time and time again this year, when we've had our downs — it's not always gonna go perfect and we don't close the game like we want to, we don't get the shot that we want to — I feel like Joe and his staff are always on us and we're learning.

"It's information. We’re learning the good and the bad, things that we did well, things that we could do better. So that's what gives me the confidence, that I feel like we have guys that are willing and that understand what it takes for us to get to that next level.”

🔊 Celtics Talk: Playoff countdown: Derrick White and Luke Kornet on what’s ahead | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

While much has been made of Boston’s shooting woes in late-game situations, the numbers have routinely been better in the playoffs. Tatum has saved some of his best late-game basketball for the postseason. White nearly willed the Celtics to the Finals a year ago with his absurd buzzer-beater in Game 6 in Miami.

The Celtics have been so dominant for much of the 2023-24 season that they haven’t put themselves into a lot of stressful late-game situations. Being unable to get to the finish line in two close games against defending champion Denver remains fresh in everyone’s minds.

Boston knows more nailbiters are coming. To accomplish their ultimate goal, this team must thrive in those situations.

Al Horford and head coach Joe Mazzulla talk about the team's mindset this week, and waiting to find out who their opponent is
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