Doc Rivers loves to note that the NBA is a make/miss league, and it's easy to look at the box score following the Celtics' 99-94 overtime loss to the Bucks on Friday night and dismiss the defeat as an off-shooting night.
That wouldn't be incorrect, as the Celtics shot 38.3 percent overall, including a mere 26.6 percent outside the restricted area. It's hard to win like that.
But the defeat speaks to a larger issue for Boston: How do the Celtics win games when their long-distance shots are not falling? It all falls back on Boston's team defense.
"We missed a lot of shots, but it's part of the game," said point guard Rajon Rondo. "We just didn't get enough stops."
The Bucks shot just 43.4 percent from the floor overall, but got hot when it mattered most. Milwaukee matched Boston's field goal total (36) on 11 less shots and were able to overcome 23 turnovers (which Boston turned into 29 points).
The Celtics entered the fourth quarter with an eight-point lead after closing out the third frame on a 10-2 run. Boston promptly missed seven of its first eight shots in the fourth, which wouldn't have been a problem if the Celtics simply maintained their defensive intensity at the other end. Instead, Milwaukee responded by making six of seven attempts over that same four-minute span and surged ahead 74-72 with 7:56 to play.
The Bucks shot 52.6 percent in the fourth quarter (10-of-19), while the Celtics shot 25 percent (6-of-24). You don't have to argue about which number is more disastrous. Boston simply cannot allow a team to shoot that well in the fourth quarter and expect to win games.
"You try to do different things. Obviously bring something else to the table -- rebound, defensive energy," said Kevin Garnett, describing what players can do when their shots won't fall. Garnett missed 16 of the 22 shots he put up in Friday's game.
"When shots aren't going for you -- me, myself, I try to just do different things defensively that can obviously impact the game. I hit one [jumper] in overtime, but other than that, I was just trying to be pure energy. It's not always going to go in the basket, so you have to be able to do different things."
The Celtics didn't do those other things on Friday. The Bucks dominated on the glass with a 57-44 advantage overall, which included a 17-9 edge in the fourth quarter. The Celtics were sorely lacking the defensive intensity needed to mask their shooting woes.
Yes, the Celtics' defense is improving overall. Improbably among the league's worst at the start of the season, Boston has clawed to the middle of the pack, ranking 15th overall in points per play (0.92), according to Synergy Sports data. No surprise, but transition defense has been the main culprit and the Celtics still rank 30th in the league in that category.
And you know what fuels transition offense for opponents? Missed shots (and turnovers, too, but that's a whole 'nutha can of worms).
Asked last week how Boston could shore up its transition defense, Rivers half-joked: "Well, get back."
It sounds almost insultingly simple, but basketball really is that easy sometimes. It's a make/miss league and when you miss, you have to get back to prevent easy buckets. The Celtics are struggling with this basic concept.
When the Celtics' net field goal percentage (Boston FG% minus Opponent FG%) is positive this season, the Celtics are 10-3. When it's even or worse, Boston is 3-10. The overreaction to Friday's loss -- and others like it -- would be for Boston to look for more high-percentage scoring opportunities.
But one thing that we shouldn't expect to change is Boston's dependency on the mid-range jumper. Garnett and Paul Pierce have always thrived in that 16-to-23 foot range, and Rondo is taking -- and making -- those same shots more often this season.
Look at Boston's starting unit at the moment: Unless Pierce is attacking the basket or Garnett shows the rare desire to grind away in the post, the Celtics are going to live 17 feet and deeper. That's Jason Terry's wheelhouse, too (while Jason Collins simply doesn't shoot unless absolutely required to).
The Celtics get away with this because they shoot a league-best 45 percent from the mid-range, about 6 percent better than the league average and nearly 2 percent better than the nearest competitor (Miami, 43.4 percent).
The Celtics also top the league in percentage of points off mid-range jumpers, with 26.7 percent of their total output coming off long-range 2s. What's more, 80.4 percent of Boston's total offense comes from 2-point shots, the third-highest total in the league (which speaks to the focus on the mid-range, an inability to get to the free throw line consistently, and the team's early season struggles with 3-point shots).
The Celtics have actually been a much more efficient offense this season than in recent years. They rank sixth in the league while averaging 0.947 points per play, according to Synergy data. Yes, there's even more room for improvement, but the offense isn't the issue here.
For Boston, the focus has to remain on the defense. The Celtics have been able to overcome off-shooting nights in recent seasons because of their ability to force opponents to have similarly bad shooting performances, but that's not happening this year.
And Boston's 13-13 record reflects that.
"There's going to be nights when shots won't fall," said Pierce. "And one thing we can control, I think, is our intensity on the defensive end. We are inconsistent. We just need a little bit of consistency in that department."