The Celtics have an elite transition defense, so why did it fall apart vs. Clippers?

Even after a good shooting game, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla sometimes gets annoyed when nobody in the media asks about the main thing on his mind: missed layups.

It’s supposed to be the easiest shot in the NBA, rolling the ball off your fingers onto the glass. But defenses are designed to funnel drivers into a shot blocker and make that the toughest look on the court. Aside from a turnover, missing these shots poses the highest risk of giving up points on the other end.

Boston’s loss on Saturday night to the Clippers, their second straight to a potential NBA Finals opponent at home after starting the season 20-0 at the Garden, made it clear why close-range shots can be their biggest enemy.

“I think our lack of an efficient offense caused us to put a ton of pressure on our defense,” Mazzulla said after the 115-96 loss. “So they had 20 points in transition. We are the No. 1 transition defensive team. But inefficient offensively, whether it was a missed shot, missed layup, turnover, I thought our bad offense impacted our defense.”

What exactly does that look like? Sure, the Clippers  scored off turnovers routinely in their blowout victory. It’s hard to get a stop when you lose the ball. But the Celtics had only 11 turnovers against LA and a franchise record for fewest turnovers in a game (2) in their last home loss, against Denver. The Celtics are taking care of the ball in the most obvious sense, and the main reason they lost was ice-cold shooting from deep.

But even when they aren’t losing the ball and are piling up bricks, there is room to run a clean offense that leads to a stable defense. This game was emblematic of why Mazzulla always stresses that understanding transition defense requires analyzing how the Celtics run their offense.

It all comes back to not missing layups. It’s plays like these that drive Mazzulla nuts, forcing a contested layup early in the clock while ignoring the spacing because Kawhi Leonard buried a shot on the prior play. Just watch how that plays out.

Terance Mann is gifted the uncontested alley-oop because Derrick White got mixed up when he stopped chasing Mann to take Al Horford’s man, Mason Plumlee, in the middle lane. After being just about the only good transition defender on the roster all night, White appeared to make a matchup mistake. But Mazzulla knows those are the easiest mistakes to make in any phase of the game.

The easiest mistake to avoid is the kind of shot Jaylen Brown took that led to the fast break in the video above. It’s not that he tried taking a floater over Paul George, who was locking him up all night. It wasn’t that he didn’t commit to driving the middle so he could either drop it off to Jrue Holiday or kick it to an open White in the corner. It’s that he didn’t play with force, and that left him and Holiday behind the ball as the Clippers started pushing the other way.

Brown looked like he wasn’t comfortable dribbling into that open space in the middle of the paint because the Clippers had been good at getting strips, steering drives into traps, and throwing the Celtics out of sync.

“I thought they did a good job of messing up the timing of every one of our passes with their active hands,” Mazzulla said. “And so what looked like a guy open, we missed it a half a second because of their activity and their active hands. And it kind of messed up the timing and rhythm of our offense, especially when we got into the paint.”

Watching the Celtics get beaten in transition seemed strange. But when Mazzulla was asked about execution in that phase, he rarely addressed the particular mechanics or strategy of transition defense.

Mazzulla isn’t harping on poor angles or getting bad support from the wings. It starts with offensive decision-making and how his players handle that first split second when they are losing possession.

“Well, you’ve got to remember transition defense is not its own entity. It’s a byproduct of other things, right?” Mazzulla said. “So the three things that led to transition tonight were missed layups, deflected passes that messed up the timing of our offense and the angle of our crashing. I think there was a few times where we crashed baseline-side instead of towards the middle of the floor where we’ve got guys behind the line of the basketball, and our bad offensive rebounding spacing led to that.”

Corner crashing has been crucial in a few games, as players like Payton Pritchard and Holiday have saved games by creating those second possessions. But it’s not as simple as running the baseline and sneaking up from under the rim. Sometimes, the read is to loop through the middle. Sometimes it’s to go for a long rebound outside of the paint. The one thing you don’t want to do is come in late and lazily swipe at the ball after the defense gets the rebound, especially against a team that has been dominating in transition all night.

This shows how the numbers game works and why transition defense starts with discipline in closing out an offensive possession. Mann was the fastest player on the floor all game, so going for that steal and running past him guarantees a fast break. The Celtics are now defending three on five, so Sam Hauser gets confused and leaves Daniel Theis in the middle to return to his normal assignment on the wing.

The play ends with Luke Kornet fouling Theis so hard the smack could be heard loud from the stands.

Brown and Jayson Tatum are shown as the culprits here for their pre-defense decision-making not just because these were two of the most preventable fast breaks of the game. But it shows how layered their responsibility is to manage the game. Boston’s transition defense tends to falter when the Celtics become frustrated and force bad shots or take low-reward gambles that take them out of position.

“Yeah, I think we just can’t be predictable. We have to be decisive, right, and try to manipulate the defense,” Tatum said. “They have schemes, they’re well-coached, they have good players over there. You gotta throw counterpunches at them, and make adjustments throughout the game.”

The Celtics offense never quite found a way to deal with the Clippers’ defensive acuity, as they missed all their open shots while Tatum and Brown struggled to find a mismatch to target. Without Kristaps Porziņģis, Boston didn’t have any of the easy two-man actions that can get them through a rough stretch. Then when they get tired of all those misses, they start making small mistakes that lead to Terance Mann dunks.

But as Mazzulla said, the Celtics have been elite defending the break this year. It’s one of his major focal points, and the coaching is working. The Celtics are just not the same team without their star center. So when they don’t have their safety net and the opponent senses they have the momentum, it’s on the key offensive decision-makers to play under control.

(Photo of the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and Paul George of the Clippers: Bob DeChiara/USA Today)

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