Lesson Learned in Late-Game Execution in Loss to Bulls

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The Boston Celtics have shown throughout the first two weeks of the season that they have the recipe for success at their fingertips. But what they have not shown is the ability to carry out every step of the recipe to put a consistent winning product on the table.

Monday night’s 128-114 loss to the Chicago Bulls was a perfect example.

The C’s owned the first three quarters of the matchup, shooting the lights out, defending at a high level, and communicating on both ends of the floor. They went ahead by as many as 19 points in the third quarter, but that’s when things took a turn south.

Chicago opened the fourth quarter on a merciless, 39-11 run, which carried all the way through to the final buzzer, thus turning their lopsided deficit into a lopsided win.

In the words of head coach Ime Udoka, his team became “relaxed” after going up big, which led to its downfall.

“A lesson learned that’s gonna hurt, and should hurt, and we should be pissed off about it,” the first-year head coach stated.

The Celtics have gone through a few lessons early in the season, and this one was all about late-game execution. They played an astounding first 36, but had all of their hard work erased due to a dismal final 12.

“I think [the lesson] is understanding that we need to be able to finish games and not stop playing or not relax,” said Al Horford, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. “Teams are going to keep fighting, and we have to continue to attack. For us, it’s looking at the good (from Monday’s game), but also we’re going to have to look at the bad in that fourth quarter and understand that we’re going to have to continue to play through that adversity.”

To Horford’s point, there was plenty of good that came earlier in the matchup. In fact, the first three quarters were perhaps Boston’s best basketball of the season.

Up until the fourth quarter, the C’s had been shooting 51.4 percent from the field, including 60 percent from 3-pont range. Their ball handling was nearly flawless as well, having committed just one turnover during the first half.

By the end of the third, Boston had five individuals who had scored at least in the teens. Jaylen Brown had 28 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Jayson Tatum had 18 points and Horford had 15 points and nine boards. Marcus Smart was on track for his best outing of the season with 14 points and four steals and his backup, Dennis Schroder, had 13 points and five assists.

All against the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

But you can’t take your foot off the gas against the best teams.

“We just have to make sure we continue to execute, and we need to execute better,” said Horford. “And when I say execute, it’s setting screens when we need to set screens, not turning the ball over, that’s important, and I think if we do those things, I think we’ll be in a better position.”

In the meantime, the Celtics have some work to do. They’ve dug themselves into a 2-5 hole, including an 0-3 start at home, and have picked up some ugly losses along the way.

But the belief is still there, as Smart expressed after the game.

“Sometimes I tell people, ‘Before you see the rainbow, it has to rain,’” the eighth-year guard eloquently stated. “We're going through the rain right now, so we gotta figure out how to get out of it. It's not going to be easy; it's not going to be pretty. Just gotta figure out a way, and I think we will.”

And he should think that they will find a way, because the Celtics have all the right tools to do so. They have two star wings who can score all over the court. They have a handful of tenacious perimeter defenders, along with a duo of elite rim protectors in Horford and Rob Williams. And they have better depth than they had last season, including some additional veteran leaders.

But there are also a lot of new aspects to get used to, which Horford pointed out.

“We do have some new pieces, new guys coming in, and we’re all trying to figure out how to play different positions, different roles and it’s something that we have to figure out,” said the 15-year vet. “In that regard, all I can say is we can’t let our guard down, we need to continue to play. And when we put teams down, we have to keep them down.”

Despite the gut-wrenching nature of the loss, Horford senses that strides are being made. He’s seen great effort out of the team over the last two games even though they have both ended in defeat.

“This game was encouraging in parts, but we have some work to do,” he said. “I am encouraged the way that we’re trending. I do believe we’re going to get better. We just have to stick to it.”

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