Celtics’ block party keeps Boston rolling through shaky shooting: ‘We didn’t panic’


BOSTON — Derrick White chirped Jaylen Brown almost immediately after entering the Celtics locker room late Sunday night. Brown was sitting at his locker when White returned from fulfilling his media duties.

“I got that block,” White told his teammate.

Though the box score said White was right, Brown disagreed. The smiles on their faces said they both understood who owned the blocked shot didn’t matter at all. Together, they had preserved a 105-98 Game 2 win by walling off the rim from P.J. Washington with 51 seconds left.

Who knows what would have happened over the rest of the final minute if White and Brown had not flown back to prevent Washington from cutting into a five-point Boston lead. With a Washington bucket on that transition play, a stunning Celtics collapse would have at least become a possibility after they had taken a 103-89 advantage with 3:34 left. Instead, White and Brown sandwiched Washington from each side on the pivotal fast break.

The scorer decided White reached the Mavericks forward first. The video showed Brown also helped knock the basketball off the glass.

“If I wasn’t there,” Brown asked White in the locker room, “you had it?”

White assured his teammate he would have swatted away the dunk attempt anyway, but Brown refused to accept the explanation.

“All right,” Brown responded, smiling again. “That’s cap.”

Whoever deserved the block, plays like that one helped the Celtics survive the disappearance of what is often their greatest weapon. They could laugh about who deserved credit for the game-saving block after finding other ways to win on a night their 3-point shooting dried up. They didn’t just have a bad performance from outside, but one of their worst all season. Their 25.6-percent 3-point shooting ranked 95th out of their 98 games so far, including the regular season. Before Sunday, they had only shot worse than that one time during the playoffs: They went 8 for 35 from deep in Game 2 of the second round while the Cleveland Cavaliers pummeled them by 24 points. As great as the Celtics have been this season, and as much as they have worked at developing other ways to win, they were an ugly 4-8 during the regular season when shooting less than 30 percent on 3-point attempts. Even for the best teams, such horrible shooting nights normally spell disaster. Like former Celtics coach Doc Rivers likes to say, it truly can be a make/miss league at times.

The Celtics kept missing Sunday. They missed their first eight 3-pointers as a team. Jayson Tatum missed his first five individually. He and Jaylen Brown, the team’s two All-Stars, combined to shoot 2-for-12 on 3-point attempts while the team’s bench combined to shoot 1-for-10 from downtown. Though the one second-unit make was a big one (Payton Pritchard’s buzzer-beating heave at the end of the third quarter), the Celtics repeatedly failed to punish the Mavericks from behind the arc. The Celtics only made 10 3-pointers, a mark they bested in all but four of their previous games, including the regular season.

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The Celtics still took a 2-0 series lead. One obvious reason they prevailed on such a cold-shooting night was that the Mavericks had an even worse time throwing the ball into the basket from outside. But the Boston players and coaches also emphasized that the misses didn’t break them.

“I thought we had a bunch of great looks,” Brown said. “If you go back and look in the first half, Sam (Hauser) had a bunch of great looks, (Derrick White) had some looks that didn’t go down. But we didn’t panic. We kept guarding, we stayed in the game and we kept trusting it and we made enough tonight to win the game.”

The Celtics have tried to prepare themselves to overcome rough shooting nights. Joe Mazzulla made it one of his missions during the preseason to build new paths for his team to win. He didn’t want Boston to remain as reliant on the 3-point shot as it was last season. In late October, he emphasized the Celtics needed to generate ways to take the shooting luck out of the game. He often sounded obsessed with generating more shot attempts and 3-point attempts than an opponent. Winning those margins, he said, would give them a recipe to survive when the 3-ball stopped falling.

The Celtics won both categories in Game 2. They took four more field goal attempts than Dallas and 13 more 3-point attempts. Boston, often chastised over the years for settling too much from outside, also produced five more attempts than the Mavericks inside the restricted area. The Celtics, who rarely force turnovers, forced Dallas into 15 — another way for Boston to win on the margins. With the misses piling up, the Celtics needed to tweak the math of basketball in their favor. Mazzulla said their expected points-per-shot value was “much higher” than Dallas’ during the first half.

“I liked every shot that we took,” Mazzulla said. “That’s the most important thing, is take what the defense gives you, whether it’s a layup or 3.”

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Some of the Celtics’ worst shooting nights over the years have come when they succumb to stagnant offense. They didn’t do that Sunday. Tatum and Brown regularly broke down the first line of defense off the bounce, reached the paint and sprayed kickouts to the perimeter. Mazzulla thought it was important his team avoided the urge to force bad shots.

“So usually what happens is you have those empty possessions on the offensive end, your defense starts to weigh in or you start to mistrust the discipline of your spacing and your shot selection,” Mazzulla said, “and you end up giving up transition (opportunities) and getting cross-matched. So the guys trusted and stayed disciplined and we were able to stay out of cross-matches and we were able to kind of keep the game in the way we wanted to play it.”

The Celtics defense largely cut off the Mavericks’ transition chances. According to Cleaning the Glass, only 6.5 percent of Dallas’ possessions started with a transition play, a lowly number. The Mavericks barely had any success on those plays. Mazzulla believed the Celtics offense, despite all of its misses, gave the team’s defense a chance to thrive.

The Boston defense did thrive. The Celtics held Dallas to 105.4 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked last in the league during the regular season. Boston limited the Mavericks’ supporting cast while Luka Dončić put together a dazzling first half, then eventually bothered Dončić into several uncharacteristic mistakes during the second. He finished with eight turnovers, including five after halftime. After shooting 9-for-13 in the first half, Dončić went just 3-for-8 in the second. His scoring diminished every quarter. After scoring 13 points in the first, he had 10 in the second, six in the third and four in the fourth. Brown said the Celtics’ key is to “wear on those guys,” including Dončić.

“Be as physical as we possibly can, full team effort,” Brown said. “Just keep touching them. That’s it. I think that those guys are tremendously gifted offensively. They came out swinging. Luka came out in the first quarter, we knew what he was going to do. We knew he was going to be aggressive. But we just stayed with the game plan. We stayed just consistent and we were able to turn him over a few times that helped us push the lead out.”

Through all the misses, the Celtics stuck to their plan on both ends of the court. It was fitting that one of their biggest plays came directly after a bricked 3-point attempt. After White clanged a corner 3-point attempt with about four minutes left, Jrue Holiday picked up Washington before halfcourt and forced him to throw the ball backward to Dončić. Holiday deflected the pass, then, with the eight-second clock running out, rushed forward to pressure Dončić. The Dallas star’s urgent pass was picked off by White on the other side of halfcourt. Seconds later, Holiday cashed in a 3-pointer to put the Celtics ahead 100-89. A White 3-pointer on the following Boston possession pushed the lead to 103-89.

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The Celtics are used to splashing home 3-pointers in a hurry like they did near the end of that sequence. They can, and often do, win games by dropping long ball after long ball on their opponents’ heads. They just didn’t need their 3-point best to hold off the Mavericks in Game 2. These Celtics, closing in on a championship, have more than one way to win.

“Whatever it takes,” White said as he walked away from Brown.

(Photo of Jaylen Brown and Derrick White blocking P.J. Washington: Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images)





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