In That’s Pretty Interesting, a recurring column, James Herbert takes a look at the fascinating little things happening around the NBA. 

In the second overtime of Game 6 between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, Jaylen Brown tried to attack Fred VanVleet in transition. The Celtics wing couldn’t shake VanVleet with an in-and-out dribble and a crossover, and the Raptors guard slapped the ball out of his hands.

About a minute later, Brown isolated against Toronto guard Kyle Lowry. The play was different — it was in isolation, and he tried to back Lowry down and shoot over the top — but the result was the same: A 6-foot Raptors guard forced him left and slapped the ball out of his hands.

These two possessions tell all sorts of stories. One is about VanVleet and Lowry, Toronto’s tenacious, indefatigable backcourt with heavy hands. Another is about Brown, whose performance was complicated — he scored 31 points, but attempted a career-high 30 shots, a result of the Raptors focusing their defensive attention on Kemba Walker (who saw some more box-and-one coverage) and Jayson Tatum. 

A third is about how close Toronto came to ending its season. When VanVleet stripped Brown, Boston had scored on both of its double-overtime possessions, while the Raptors had turned the ball over twice and missed a layup. Toronto scored after both stops and went on to tie the series with a 125-122 win.

Yet another story they tell is about the exhilarating subject of … shot location.

On the first play, did Brown really need to make that move? Even if VanVleet hadn’t successfully swiped down on the ball, Brown would be taking a contested floater from the dotted line with 18 on the shot clock. Boston didn’t have numbers on the break, and it could’ve worked for a better look. 

The second play made me think of a tweet from earlier this week by The Athletic’s Seth Partnow:

Brown had played almost 50 minutes, and it would be unreasonable to expect perfect decision-making, especially against this stifling, shapeshifting Toronto defense. But his attempt over Lowry felt much more like settling than any of the 13 3s he took. The same is true of Brown’s contested stepback 2 against OG Anunoby in the first overtime.

The Celtics shot 44 for 100 in the game; the Raptors shot 44 for 101. Boston finished 19 for 46 from 3-point range; Toronto went 19 for 47. The Celtics lost despite having a slightly higher offensive rating because Anunoby won three jump balls. In terms of shooting, the Raptors only had a couple of small statistical edges — they got to the line more frequently (18 for 25, compared to Boston’s 15 for 18) and, per Cleaning The Glass, they shot 8 for 16 on short midrange shots (i.e. outside the restricted area, but in the paint) and the Celtics shot 1 for 15 on them. 

Thoughts, Russ?

Shot location numbers can be a bit messy — the charge circle is a literal thin line between a rim attempt and a short midrange shot. But there is a reason that analytics people love layups and are less enamored with floaters and short jumpers. Those little shots outside of the restricted area tend to be contested, and they are less likely to result in trips to the free throw line. In the Houston Rockets’ film room at training camp, assistant coach Brett Gunning told the team that “it’s not enough to get into the paint for a shot,” Rob Mahoney wrote in a Sports Illustrated feature, because the data supports taking “the extra step that turns a floater into a layup or a foul.” 

In the throes of an intense, nerve-racking, high-stakes playoff game — it was described variously as the best game of the playoffs, the bubble and the season by the likes of Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and John Hollinger — that extra step is asking a lot. There is immense value in being able to make shots that defenses typically concede, especially in the playoffs. James Harden, the Rockets’ franchise player, went to work on his floater after an embarrassing playoff exit in 2017, in which the San Antonio Spurs planted their big man near the rim on his pick-and-rolls, daring him to take in-between shots. 

Given the microscopic margin of victory on Wednesday, though, Boston surely regrets some of its short, tough 2s. In the first quarter, Brad Wanamaker turned two potential catch-and-shoot 3s into missed floaters over Anunoby, and he was fully smothered on the second one. Wanamaker made 29 percent of his short midrange shots this season, per CTG. 

In the third quarter, Tatum picked up a charge as he lofted a floater (that went in) over VanVleet and Marc Gasol. A couple minutes later he was short on an ambitious runner in traffic. Tatum shot a career-high 39 percent on short midrange shots this season, per CTG.  

In that same third-quarter stretch, Marcus Smart tried to float one over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-11 Marc Gasol. Smart shot a career-high 41 percent on short midrange shots this season. 

In the fourth, Walker went one-on-one with VanVleet and missed a short, spinning jumper. It was a clean look, if only because VanVleet tried to take a charge. Later, Walker managed to get by VanVleet, then stopped and missed a heavily contested short jumper with both Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam jumping at him. Walker shot a career-low 28 percent on short midrange shots this season, per CTG. 

The easy takeaway is that Boston needs to be more judicious with its shot selection in Game 7 on Friday. Toronto is a topflight defensive team, and part of the reason they want to make the Celtics work for everything they get is so they’re encouraged to rush into shots that aren’t all that efficient. On this stage, every possession is magnified, as is every decision to settle.

The reality, though, is that you take a bucket however you can get one in a series like this. On a Zoom conference on Thursday, Boston coach Brad Stevens said both his team and the Raptors “hang their hat on toughness and defending and willing themselves to figure out a way to win games.” To my eyes, the Celtics did take a bunch of bad, contested floaters, but they were mostly bad because they were contested, not because they were floaters. 

“When you’re in this, you don’t scrutinize with the same level of eye if you’re not,” Stevens said. “Just because you know how hard it is. You know the physical toughness it takes, the emotional toughness it takes, the mental toughness it takes.”

Down four with 38.8 seconds left in the second overtime, Stevens called timeout. Tatum caught an inbounds pass several feet behind the 3-point line, drove right against Lowry and took a runner from just outside the paint, with Siakam shuffling over to contest it. The ball fell right through the net. On the next possession, Lowry isolated against Walker, spun his way to the right block and hit a fadeaway 14-footer with a hand in his face.

Toronto got the matchup it wanted, but the game-winner can’t possibly be described as a high-percentage shot. Those are the breaks. 


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