Realistic Optimism 2: Back-to-backs AND Travel

Yesterday, I pointed out that there are several very tangible, quantitative reasons to expect the Celtics to do very well in the playoffs this year.  The first reason I gave was that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who have been playing at a ridiculous impact-level this year, will be playing a lot more together in the postseason than they did in the regular season (especially recently).  The natural follow-up would be to next talk about Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, the other two members of the "Big Four", but that's not really my point.  These articles aren't so much to discuss the make-up of our team (though that is, of course, a part of my message), but instead my point is to highlight specific things that will be different in the postseason with respect to the regular season that should make this team noticeably stronger on the way to #18.

So, today let's talk about the schedule.

We all get tired of hearing about the age of this Celtics group and how it means the team is weaker...but in the regular season there is truth in that.  Outside of how that might affect the game-to-game focus and/or motivation and/or strategy (another potential, future post) also shows up naturally in recovery time.  I'm sure most of us have either heard or would suspect that this team has trouble with back-to-back games...I surely would have expected it.  But having just crunched some numbers, the effect is maybe more pronounced than you realize.

The Celtics have played 19 sets of back-to-back games this year, for a total of 38 games.

In the 19 front-end games, the Celtics are 15 - 4 with a +8.2 scoring margin.

In the 19 game-2s of the B-to-B, the Celtics are 8 - 11 with a +1.1 scoring margin.

And, in the 43 non-back-to-back games played this year, the Celtics are 32 - 11 with a +5.9 scoring margin.

Put that together, and you'll find that in the 62 non-game-2-of-back-to-backs that the Celtics have played in this year they are 47 - 15, with a +6.6 scoring margin (that win percentage would currently be the best in the NBA).  Meanwhile, in the 19 game-2s the Celtics are a below .500 team on the year.  That's a very stark difference.

But we can go further.

Because not only might the actual exertion of back-to-backs be hard on our older legs...also, the quick turnaround travel of back-to-backs could also be hard on the team.  Last year before game 7 of the Finals, I pointed out that the Celtics seemed to have a Travel Disadvantage in the postseason.  That home/away mattered (team was obviously better at home), but that travel in between games ALSO mattered.  As evidence, I pointed out that for last year's postseason the Celtics were 8 - 2 with a scoring margin of +8.2 in games that were played at the same location as a previous game regardless of whether that location was home or away, whereas they were only 7 - 6 with a margin of -0.9 in the games in which they had to travel before the game (again, regardless of whether the game was in Boston or on the road).  So, how does that relate to this year's B-to-B record?  I'm glad you asked.

This year, the Celtics are 6 - 0 with a scoring margin of +18.3 in their 6 front-end games that were played in Boston (including wins over Miami and Orlando).  It's a small n, but this year with rest at home the Celtics have been dominant.  In fact, even on the back end of back-to-backs, the Celtics are an undefeated 5 - 0 with a margin of +7.6 at home...reflecting that the team is strong at home pretty much regardless of the situation.  But the big difference shows up when the team had to play on the road on the same day they traveled.  If the first game of the b-to-b was on the road, the Celtics were still 9 - 4 in those travel situations which likely included at least a day to acclimate to the new environment.  But in the 14 game 2s of B-to-Bs that the Celtics played on the road?  They were a putrid 3 - 11 with a negative scoring differential.

Quick summary: In 14 game-2-of-back-to-backs-on-the-road, the Celtics were 3 - 11.  In the other 67 games, the Celtics were 52 and 15.  I haven't looked this up for every team, but I think I can safely wager that there aren't many teams with a differential that stark.  This was a definite Achilles heel for the Celtics...IN THE REGULAR SEASON.

So, getting to the very heart of the matter. this year's Celtics have been outstanding as long as they have not had to play 2 games in 2 days AND play on the same day that they travel to an away location.  In the postseason, the Celtics will NEVER have to play back-to-backs and will NEVER have to play on the same day that they travel to an away location.  You cut away those 2 conditions, and this Celtics team has been as good as (if not better) than every other team in the league this year...and that's including things like KG getting rested, the drama after the Perk trade, and playing most of the second half of the season without our top-2 centers.  This gives us a second very tangible, very quantifiable reason for Celtics fans to be very optimistic about this postseason.

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