As the Celtics guard dribbled down the lane on a three-on-two break late in the first quarter, he tried to dish off to Chris Wilcox moving ahead of him on the left. The bounce pass was low and slightly behind Wilcox, and after the big man fumbled the ball out of bounds, Terry tapped his own chest and mouthed the words, “My bad.” It was only one out of a hideous 18 turnovers on the day, but no single moment better captured why this was a game the Celtics were not going to win — and why they must fix the issue if they plan on sticking around for more than a token appearance in the playoffs.
Turnovers have popped up as an issue for the Celtics at times since Rajon Rondo‘s season-ending injury, which is to be expected somewhat when a team loses its best ball-handler. Rather than wilt with a stilted offense, however, the Celtics have responded with a different offensive approach in which more turnovers might not be completely surprising. They are running more, throwing the ball ahead and passing it from side-to-side in the halfcourt, actions that tend to lead to more misfired passes and errant dribbles. Yet at times the Celtics have been downright stingy with the ball. Other times, not.
Sunday in Oklahoma City was one of the “not” times. While turnovers were not the Celtics’ only problem — they also shot less than 38 percent from the field and allowed 33 free throws by the Thunder — it was the most glaring, controllable flaw in their performance.
By “controllable,” we mean this: Sometimes, shots do not fall. On the road, referees tend to be quick with their whistles when the home team gets bumped. Neither of those things was within Boston’s hands. But what Kobe Bryant would term their “irresponsibility with the basketball” was entirely within their hands — their slippery, careless hands.
The Celtics have averaged 17 turnovers per game in March, a season-worst, yet the first time turnovers were raised as a serious issue recently came a week ago in Philadelphia. Against an awful Sixers team, the Celtics committed a season-high 22 turnovers and still managed to come out with a victory because, as we mentioned, the Sixers stink. The Celtics were able to win by contesting every shot Philadelphia took from the field, winning the rebounding battle and committing only 16 fouls. Bad teams tend to let good teams get away with things like 22 turnovers, as long as the good team does not blow it in several other areas as well.
The Thunder are not one of those teams, and, in fact, few teams are. The Celtics have survived despite averaging 16.8 turnovers per game in the last four games of their five-game win streak, and it was no coincidence that they happened to beat the Pacers, the best team in that run, on a night when they coughed up the ball only 13 times. The two very different outcomes of the Celtics’ games in Indiana and Oklahoma City should feature huge, red-marker circles around the turnover column in the box score for that very reason.
No matter what your junior varsity coach drilled into you, some turnovers are excusable, even understandable. A risky pass or a crosscourt look is occasionally worth the heightened chance it will get stolen if the payoff is a layup or wide-open shot. Players like Terry and Wilcox are not entirely comfortable playing together, but their willingness to figure it out is apparent. When the ball is moving as much as it was on Sunday, when the Celtics recorded 34 assists on 42 field goals, turnovers happen. Nobody is saying the Celtics cannot turn the ball over at all if they hope to win.
Still, there is what happened in Indiana and there is what happened in Oklahoma City. In the former, the Celtics took care of the ball for the most part and were able to claw out an ugly victory against one of the NBA’s rising teams. In the latter, the Celtics threw the ball away with regularity, and with it they threw away their shot at stealing another win on an elite team’s floor.