Let’s start here with an obvious statement that became highlighted in Game 4 of Celtics-Raptors: The Celtics offense misses Gordon Hayward a great deal. Six straight wins and some hot shooting nights covered up his absence for much of the last two weeks, but Boston isn’t playing Philly anymore and they aren’t getting insane shooting nights from Marcus Smart either (3-of-15 in last two games from 3-point range). Instead, they are faced with arguably the best defense remaining in the Orlando bubble with an innovative coach running the show. Hayward’s midrange shooting and passing would be an ideal zone buster against this team, but that’s not something the Celtics are going to be able to count on anytime soon. Hayward is expected to arrive back in the bubble on Sunday night and will have a four-day quarantine upon his arrival and he is still not healthy enough to play in this series.
Without him, the Celtics offense has been dragged down into the mud after their Game 1 rout against Toronto. Boston has scored just 104.3 points per 100 possessions in the last three games, a mark that would have placed the Celtics dead last out of 30 NBA teams during the regular season.
The Raptors offense has struggled all series long against Boston as well (101 points per 100 possessions), but that’s not a surprise for a team that counts offense as a weakness all year. They finished 13th in offensive rating during the regular season and ranked 18th on offense out of 22 teams during seeding games in the bubble. Without Kawhi Leonard in the fold this season, the Raptors are reliant on 3-point offense and transition scoring to fuel their points and that’s something they have managed to claw enough of in parts of the last two games (17 made 3s in Game 4 did the job).
The Celtics decline has been a bit more drastic, falling from a top-4 offense to worst in the NBA during the past three games.
Even without Hayward, the Celtics have more offensive firepower than the Raptors on most nights. So where are the areas the Celtics need to clean up going into Game 5? A few areas to watch beyond the obvious (start making some 3s)
GETTING BACK TO THE PASS
The Celtics posted a series-low 18 assists in Game 4 thanks in part to a heap of missed 3-point attempts. While a number of those looks were wide open misfires, the Celtics started to get away from a formula that produced better looks, especially as we got into the second half.
Instead, of trying to beat the Raptors with the pass as they did for Game 1, isolation play took over for large stretches and it cost the C’s some crucial possessions. Notice how ambitious the likes of Smart and Brown got in these sequences as they tried to attack in transition.
That’s not a good formula to beat one of the best defensive teams in the league. In fact, it’s exactly the type of play that sunk the Celtics in last year’s Conference Semifinals against the Bucks, as they put their head down in the lane and ignored their surroundings, which led to numerous blocks and runouts by Milwaukee in a 4-1 series win. The main offender for that debacle is now gone, but Brown/Smart/Tatum all had their ugly moments there as well. We saw some of those creeping back into their play in this series.
The Celtics have been trending towards this type of individual play more in the last two games. They nearly got away with it in Game 3 before OG Anunoby’s 3 but it sunk them for virtually all of the second half in Game 4. Finding good shots with the pass must be a priority for the C’s offense and that didn’t happen nearly often enough in Game 4. Turning down good shots for great shots and avoiding tunnel vision is a clear way the C’s can improve the offense beyond just getting some of those 3s to fall.
AVOIDING THE LOWRY TRAP
The Celtics committed five offensive fouls in Game 4, which made up more than a third of their 14 turnovers on the night. Three