Celtics

The Celtics have been one of the worst 4th quarter teams in the NBA

In a host of crucial categories, the 4th-quarter Celtics are struggling mightily.

Celtics fourth quarter
Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown head for the Celtics bench. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Understandably lost in the noise after the Celtics stumbled again on Monday against the Timberwolves — who were without their entire starting lineup — is the fact that the Celtics held a tenuous lead entering the fourth quarter.

In a 108-103 loss, the Celtics were outscored 34-24 in the final period. A 2-for-14 performance from 3-point range ultimately set them up for an embarrassing loss to Jaylen Nowell, Nathan Knight and Greg Monroe, and if you didn’t know who Nowell was before Monday’s game, don’t feel bad: Neither did Monroe.

“One of the poorest losses of the year,” Ime Udoka said after the game. “A team that is as depleted as we are just out-hustled us late in the game, and it was a very undisciplined effort overall.”

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But Monday’s loss was just the latest in a series of poor performances down the stretch. Just two days earlier, the Celtics shot 21.6 percent in the fourth against the Bucks on Christmas Day and were outscored 27-19 in a 117-113 loss.

All season, the Celtics have struggled enormously in the final frame — so much so, a case could be made that they are the worst fourth-quarter team in the NBA this season.

Consider:

  • The Celtics are second-to-last in fourth-quarter net rating at -8.9 (all stats from NBA.com unless otherwise noted). Only the Nuggets (a nauseating -12.3) are worse. The No. 1 Warriors, by comparison, are +16.4 in the fourth. Last year’s Celtics were +2.2.
  • In clutch scenarios — the last five minutes of a game when a team is leading or trailing by five points or fewer — the Celtics have a -8.8 net rating.
  • Per Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics are the eighth-best defense in the NBA. Imagine how much higher they would rank if their defensive rating didn’t plummet to 27th in the fourth quarter.
  • The Celtics are 25th in turnover percentage in the fourth quarter and 29th in assist ratio — they cough up 15.5 percent of their fourth-quarter possessions and assist on just 52 percent of their field goals. That makes for the worst assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA (1.20).
  • And, as anyone who watches games could tell you, the Celtics can’t shoot in the final frame. At 48.4 in effective field-goal percentage and 31.9 percent from deep, they are 24th in two crucial shooting categories.

Really good teams usually know how to close. As Al Horford put it on Monday: “It’s not good enough. What we’re doing and the things that we want to accomplish, we can’t do it playing like this. We just can’t.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s going wrong — or at least, why it’s going wrong. The shot distribution is roughly what you’d think: Jayson Tatum dominates the usage at 33.3 percent, while Jaylen Brown (26.9) and Dennis Schröder (23.5) are behind him.

All three are shooting catastrophically: Effective field-goal percentages of 47.9, 38.8 and 47.2 respectively. Tatum is hitting 30.9 percent of his 3-pointers above the break and just 51 percent of his shots at the rim. Brown is shooting 65 percent at the rim and just over 20 percent everywhere else.

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After those three, things get a little strange. Payton Pritchard is next in usage at 20.0 with a net rating of -24.2. Enes Freedom clocks in at 17 percent usage and is one of only Celtics with a positive net rating at 1.6. The other is Rob Williams at 2.0.

Individual stats, however, don’t really tell the story. On Monday, Brown struggled mightily to deal with a defensive scheme that focused on him. He shot poorly, but he got little help from the Celtics’ supporting cast.

The Celtics either have players who aren’t good in the fourth quarter, or they haven’t figured out how to play well together in those scenarios (or some mix of both). Given what we know about the individual players on this team, the former seems unlikely to be the primary concern: Tatum and Brown were deserving All-Stars last year, and Tatum at least seems destined to get in again. Both have been in high-leverage situations in their young careers, and both have excelled at times in them.

But the Celtics’ inability to play together might be more frustrating. If the players were just bad, the team’s fourth-quarter struggles could be shrugged off. We can be reasonably confident even Monday’s skeleton crew should have beaten the Timberwolves.

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Something goes very wrong late in games for this year’s team, and the current slide likely won’t slow much until they figure out how to fix it.

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