Ball movement has been one of the greatest strengths for the Boston Celtics of late, but on Tuesday night, they were tested in that aspect when going up against the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference.
After tallying 64 assists and 19 turnovers in wins against the Houston Rockets and Charlotte Hornets this past weekend, Boston’s thriving offense hit a roadblock against the Philadelphia 76ers, as it accumulated just 19 assists while coughing up a season-high 20 turnovers in a 106-96 defeat inside TD Garden.
“It’s hard to win with that many turnovers against a team like that,” said Jayson Tatum, who logged a team-high 20 points in the loss. “Along with some other things that we did or didn’t do tonight, but it was key for all of us that we have to take care of the ball.”
Four out of the five Celtics starters committed three or more turnovers, including a season-high six from the typically sure-handed Marcus Smart, who has one of the best assist/turnover ratios in the NBA. Kemba Walker was the lone exception of that group, as he dished out a team-high six assists while committing just one turnover.
“We were loose with passes,” said C’s head coach Brad Stevens, whose team had been fifth in the league in assist/turnover ratio since the All-Star break. “We took too much of a gamble, too much of a risk, and it backfired. You have to be sure with the ball against them because otherwise, they get running in transition. And in the half-court, they’re hard enough to stop, but if you let them have runouts, it’s impossible."
It’s hard enough to beat a team when you’re committing careless mistakes, but it’s even more difficult to do so when facing a defense of Philadelphia’s caliber. The 76ers currently lead the East with a defensive rating of 107.1, and it showed in their flawless rotations Tuesday night.
In order to combat such a force down the road, Stevens says his team must do a better job of moving off-ball and relying less on isolation offense.
“We need to do a better job of moving, cutting, getting better baskets,” Stevens said. “You can’t beat these guys in isolation, and they are very good pick-and-roll defenders because they are so long, hey chase you off the screen. (Joel) Embiid is great in the pick-and-roll. I think people make the mistake of continuously putting him in there. We’ve been good in the past about not doing that, we weren’t great tonight. And so we just need to attack them a little better.”
Another aspect that hurt the Celtics’ ball movement was losing Robert Williams early in the game due to foul trouble. Williams had been one of the team’s best passers of late, but he was unable to make much of an offensive impact since he was so focused on helping to contain Embiid on the defensive end.
Ultimately, Williams was unable to combat Embiid’s physicality, as he committed three fouls in the first quarter before fouling out early in the fourth quarter with less than 14 minutes of playing time under his belt.
Even though it was a frustrating night for Williams, it was a good opportunity for him to learn while going up against the most dominant big man in the league.
“Rob's got a lot of work on but, he's a guy that’ll get better,” said Stevens. “I knew coming into the game, my biggest concern with Rob was him staying on the court. He's got to get better with his hands as far as keeping his hands straight up, and those types of things, but you see Embiid’s got all the tricks, and he takes advantage of every little bump. He did that to everybody on our team, not just Rob, but, if I had to guess, going into this game, Rob was probably gonna foul a few times in the first couple of minutes, which is just part of it.”
Jayson Tatum followed up his coach’s assessment of Williams with some encouraging words for the young Celtics big man.
“We all have tough nights, tough games where things didn't necessarily go our way, so don't get discouraged,” Tatum said. “We've all been there. I've been there plenty of times. But we got a game tomorrow and he'll be ready."
Williams and the Celtics will have to be ready, because Wednesday night’s matchup against the East’s No. 2-ranked defense in the New York Knicks won’t be much easier.
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