6 takeaways as Celtics fall to Magic in Robert Williams’ return
“We’re trying to win a championship here. So there are no excuses.”
The Celtics dropped a bad loss to the Magic on Friday, falling 117-109 in their return after a six-game road trip.
Here are the takeaways.
1. The big news on Friday was the return of big man Robert Williams. Williams played like himself, and he offered a quintessential Robert Williams quote after telling reporters that his return felt “great.”
“We f—ing lost, but we need to bounce back from that,” Williams said.
He’s right, and we’ll get to that, but seeing Williams back on the floor after his rough offseason was encouraging. The Celtics were careful with Williams — after declaring him day-to-day prior to the Warriors game, they held him out for the remainder of the road trip and finally announced his official return a couple of hours prior to Friday’s game.
Williams only played 17 minutes, but he made his presence felt immediately. With a little over five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Marcus Smart beat his defender and got downhill toward the paint. A defender rotated away from Williams, and Smart knew what to do.
But maybe Williams’ best play was an assist midway through the fourth quarter. Williams took a pocket pass from Derrick White under the rim and instead of rising up and trying to dunk on Terrence Ross, he whipped a pass to a wide-open Malcolm Brogdon in the right corner. Brogdon buried the triple.
Williams is going to help the Celtics in myriad ways — his vertical spacing will make Jayson Tatum’s work easier, and his rim protection will help the Celtics’ defenders. But importantly, he also can help the Celtics maintain their identity as a team that moves the ball and finds open shooters. He’s a great passer who makes instant decisions extremely well.
“He’s a great team leader, a great player who works hard, so we’re definitely excited for him to come back,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I’m just happy that he was able to feel comfortable out there and we’ll find ways for him to be effective just because of how hard he plays and what he brings to the table.”
The Celtics may have “f—ing lost,” but if Williams can stay healthy and contribute positively in the near future, they will rectify their slip-up quickly. Williams makes the best team in the NBA significantly better.
2. Now on to the problems.
We will start with Jaylen Brown’s ball-handling, which deserted him entirely. Brown turned the ball over seven times. Four were live-ball turnovers that were stolen from him, including a brutal attempt at a behind-the-back pass in transition right before halftime which could have cut the Celtics’ deficit to four if he finished it off. Instead, the turnover led to a Mo Wagner dunk, which boosted the lead to eight before the break. Brown also traveled twice and stepped on the sideline once in the second half.
Brown needs to be significantly better. He’s an All-NBA candidate because of his high-level scoring and efficiency (as well as the Celtics’ record), but his 12.3 percent turnover percentage is 48th percentile, and he’s averaging just 3.6 assists with 3.0 turnovers per game — high numbers, even considering his 96th percentile usage rate.
3. The Celtics lost despite 31 points on 9-for-20 shooting by Jayson Tatum. He shot 11-for-12 from the free-throw line, which made Friday’s game the first time this season he shot nine or more free throws in a loss. The Celtics had been 11-0 prior.
Tatum also picked up a technical, but as he pointed out, he has been significantly better in that department this year. A reporter asked what he said to be given the technical.
“A lot,” Tatum admitted. “I asked for it though. I mean, give me some credit. I’ve only got two techs on the year. 28 games or something. I was due for one.”
4. As a team, the Celtics shot an abysmal 11-for-46 from behind the arc. After their historic start, they have shot 30.7 percent from deep in their last five games and 35.9 percent as a whole.
“If you’re open, you’ve got to shoot it,” Mazzulla said. “And we’re open, so I’m not going to tell someone who’s open not to shoot it. They have to have the confidence to shoot it, and then you just got to shoot it. As long as you’re getting quality looks, I think it’s important…
“When we don’t shoot well, we have to find other areas to affect the game and that starts with our defense. And then when our defense is great, we can get out in early transition and get some easy baskets, but they can’t pass up open shots.”
Tatum added that the Celtics — who had the NBA’s best defense last season — need to be able to win when they can’t find their shooting.
“We was just guarding them too low,” Tatum said. “We have a bunch of great defenders — we have to guard them outside the three. I think we were just too low. Even guys that aren’t necessarily great shooters, they still can make shots when given that much space.”
5. Al Horford, of all people, was ejected in the third quarter for a flagrant-2 foul.
A closer look showed exactly why.
Horford seemed indignant and couldn’t believe he was thrown out despite a pretty blatant elbow to Wagner’s groin.
Tatum took Horford’s side postgame.
“That was unbelievable,” Tatum said. “I couldn’t believe Al got thrown out of the game. I didn’t think that was warranted, especially once they went to go review and they saw that Mo fouled him first. That’s why I got to shoot free throws.
“So I mean, sometimes a guy gets tired of people grabbing on him and the ref not seeing it, so s—, as a grown man, you take it into his own hands and get somebody up off of you. And that’s all he did, just got him up off him because he was getting fouled. I don’t think Al deserved to get thrown out of the game at all.”
6. Tatum — at the highly advanced age of 24 — is taking on a mentorship role for Magic forward Paolo Banchero, who looks like a superstar in the making.
“I just see somebody that obviously is on the same path that I was on,” Tatum said. “Obviously, he went to Duke and knew he was going to be one and done and ended up being the No. 1 pick. I’m not too far removed from being in his shoes, so I know what it’s like making that transition and there’s a lot being thrown at you. In a way, he has more responsibility than I did in my first season.
“So he’s still young and just being able to help him, any questions he has, any advice, whatever, because somebody helped me and you’ve just got to pay it forward.”
7. The Celtics have now lost three games in four attempts. If it wasn’t for their valiant rally against the Lakers on Tuesday, Friday’s loss would have marked a disturbing season-long four-game slide.
Dropping a game to the Magic in their return to their home court after a lengthy road trip is understandable for a number of reasons. Returning home is always a little challenging. Re-integrating Robert Williams will take some time. The 3-pointers simply didn’t fall, and sometimes that will happen — it is, as the truism goes, a make-or-miss league. The Magic have also been playing great recently — Friday’s win was their fifth in a row.
But the Celtics don’t get a lot more grace here. They are back from a road trip, and they will be sleeping in their own beds for two weeks. They need to get back to the offensive style that built their league-best record. They need to start making 3-pointers again. They need to play solid defense. They absolutely need to beat teams that are 10-20.
“There are no excuses,” Brogdon said. “We are a veteran team, we’re trying to win a championship here. So there are no excuses. They outplayed us tonight.”
The Celtics and Magic face off again on Saturday.
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