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The Whiteboard: The Boston Celtics are in serious trouble

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The Boston Celtics have only been outscored by the Miami Heat by a total of eight points so far in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that narrow margin doesn’t really capture how deep a hole they’re in. They 0-2 deficit alone is concerning, and it puts shaves their odds of advancing considerably, regardless of what model you’re looking at.

And while Game 2 was another narrow loss that could have gone their way if the ball bounced differently on a handful of possessions, it was also an epic collapse. Boston held a 17-point lead at one point and managed just 41 points in the second half. It was a frustrating repeat of Game 1 where they led by as much as 14 and lost a six-point lead in the final three minutes of regulation.

As the Celtics look for a way to grab, and hold, momentum in Game 3, there are a lot of things they need to figure out.

Is chemistry an issue for the Celtics?

Reports of Marcus Smart screaming at teammates in the locker room after the game (and others screaming right back) would certainly imply that chemistry may be a barrier to execution. These kinds of outbursts aren’t necessarily evidence of irrevocable division but it means there are some interpersonal challenges to be overcome, in addition to what’s actually happening on the court — even if there’s nothing to smooth over than tempers running hot after an embarrassing loss.

How can the Celtics consistently generate good looks?

The Heat’s second-half zone was incredibly disruptive and one of the key adjustments that fueled Miami’s comeback. The Celtics’ issues scoring against a zone are, at this point, well established and well known. According to Michael Pina, they’ve faced a zone defense on 132 possessions this postseason, nearly 100 more than any other team, and have managed just 90.9 points per 100 possessions.

The zone clogged the lane, throwing multiple bodies in front of any dribble penetration and Boston is now 13-of-37 (35.1 percent) on shots off drives in the first two games. In Game 1, it was more Bam Adebayo than the zone that was shutting things down in the paint. In Game 2, Boston couldn’t even leverage penetration into drive-and-kick actions — they registered just 4 assists on 42 drives and finished the game with 20 turnovers to just 19 assists, total.

The Celtics have now played 101 minutes against the Heat defense in this series and haven’t really found any sets or actions that they can reliably count on to create an advantage or high-quality scoring opportunity. I’m not sure what else is in Brad Stevens’ bag of tricks, but it’s time to pour it all out on the table.

Where do they use Marcus Smart?

Smart has played, as expected, ferocious defense in the series but Miami’s attack is so versatile that there’s not an obvious pressure point to apply him to. According to the NBA’s matchup data, Smart’s defensive possessions have been fairly evenly distributed against Tyler Herro (19.5 possessions), Duncan Robinson (18.0 possessions), Goran Dragic (17.1 possessions) and Jimmy Butler (17.2 possessions). Putting him on one of those primary creators, Dragic or Butler, slows them down but the Heat’s offense adapts and simply moves the creation responsibilities elsewhere.

These matchup statistics have plenty of blind spots in terms of measuring results but they match what we’re seeing on the floor. Dragic and Butler have averaged just 17.5 and 11.6 points per 100 possessions when defended by Smart (down from 28.0 and 28.8 in the regular season). But the Heat, as a team, have still scored 137.0 points per 100 possessions when Smart is on one of them. The pattern is similar with Smart on a complementary creator or scorer like Herro or Robinson. The Heat just aren’t as vulnerable to an elite defender because they share the ball so well and the Celtics haven’t figured out how to extract the most value from what Smart does on and off the ball.

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