Did the Celtics REALLY flip a switch?

The narrative for the Celtics in 2010 was that they were poor in the regular season, then "flipped a swtich" in the postseason to become contenders.  So, as the 2011 season wound down with the Celtics again losing as often as they won, the question arose as to whether they would be able to flip the same switch again to become playoff contenders this season.  And after their first round sweep of the Knicks, the consensus around here seems to be that the switch indeed has been flipped...even the head honcho in these parts wrote a headline to that effect yesterday.

But did they?  Did they REALLY flip a postseason switch against the Knicks?  Or is there another explanation?

I should preface this by saying that I don't love that term...I think it gets over-used.  Yes, the postseason is different than the regular season in both style and intensity level and that can translate to some teams improving more in the postseason than others.  But that's different...EVERY team changes from "regular season" mode to "postseason mode" once the playoffs role around.  But that doesn't mean that a switch is being flipped.  To me, the "switch" should be reserved for cases like the early 2000s Lakers where Shaq was pretty obviously pacing himself in the regular season and then turning it on to annihilate everyone in the postseason.  I really, really don't think this is the same thing.

The Celtics don't necessarily "flip a switch" in the postseason any more than other teams do.  The difference is that they are BUILT for the postseason to a much larger extent than other teams are, and thus the postseason is much more conducive to them playing at maximized levels than it is for other teams.  Thus, the Celtics tend to improve dramatically in the postseason when compared to other teams...but that is NOT a switch.

I wrote a series of three "Realistic Optimism" posts just before the playoffs where I went into some detail to bring home this exact phenomenon.  Instead of Realistic Optimism, I could have titled my series "why the Celtics are built for the postseason" and had it work just as well.  Allow me, if you will, to bring back the points that I mentioned and relate them directly to what we saw against the Knicks.

Point 1: The Garnett/Pierce combo that killed the league will see more minutes together in the postseason.

The money-shot of that article was that Garnett and Pierce were both among the top 2-3 players in the NBA this season in both on-court +/- and on/off-court +/- differential, and that even when the team "struggled" down the stretch of the season they were still +15 with Garnett on the court and +37 compared to when he was off-the-court.  The big reason why they won only 6 of those 13 games (scoring differential +0.8), I argued, was that Garnett was playing only 28+ minutes per game down the stretch...less than 60% of the Celtics' minutes.  In the postseason, I argued, Garnett would be playing closer to 35 minutes per game so that Celtics unit featuring him would be on the court a lot more often.  Just to put numbers to it, if he played 70% of the minutes instead of 60%, based on that +37 differential you'd expect the Celtics team differential to improve by about 4 points based only on that.

So, how did it work out in the first round?  Garnett played in almost exactly 70% of the team's minutes, and through four games both his on-court +/- (+21.6) and his on/off +/- differential (+41.9) are among the top few marks in the postseason thus far and look eerily similar to the +15 and +37 marks that he posted down the stretch when the team was losing.  And the team scoring differential jumped from +0.8 over those last 13 games to +8.5 against the improvement of almost 8 points.

Now, don't get too caught up in the details of the numbers.  The sample size is WAY too small to be significant (after all, Joel Anthony is among the postseason leaders in  +/- right now), and no one would realistically base quantitative conclusions upon a 13 game stretch against various opponents followed by a 4-game stretch against the same opponent 4 times.  I'm pointing out an interesting correlation, not building a proof.  But when you consider that the numbers work out to look almost exactly like what I predicted 2 weeks ago, before the playoffs even began, I think there is some strength to my conclusion. The Celtics predictably improved noticeably once the postseason began, and about half of that improvement could be tied directly to their best unit playing about 10% more minutes.

Point 2: Outside of the 2nd game of back-to-backs played on the road, the Celtics were much more elite than their record

The money-shot of my 2nd article was that the Celtics won only three of 14 2nd-half-of-back-to-back-road-games this year with a -1.2 scoring differential, but in their other 67 games (to date) they had gone 52 - 15 with a +6.6 scoring differential.   In other words, outside of the very specific case where they had to travel to an away location and play a 2nd game on a consecutive day (which, by the way will never happen in the postseason), the Celtics won at a 64-win pace with a scoring margin as good as the ultra elite in the league.

Also, a natural follow-up from this data is that outside of those 14 game 2s, the Celtics went 20 - 7 on the road this year.  So, based purely upon this factor and no other one could expect that the Celtics would be an elite team and road warriors in the postseason since their weakness (road back-to-backs) would never occur. 

And once again, their scoring margin in the Knicks series looked very similar to their scoring margin in non-road-back-2-backs and they had the best road showing of any first round team in the first round of the postseason.  Still not mathematically rigorous, still looking more at an interesting trend than at a provable phenomenon, but once again the prediction played out almost EXACTLY like the real thing.  WITHOUT FACTORING IN A SWITCH.

Point 3: Rajon Rondo is murderous in the postseason against teams not built to defend him

The money-shot of that article was a chart in which I posted Rondo's averages in March/April, in the early playoff rounds against teams with poor interior defense, and in the later playoff rounds against teams with great interior defense for each of the past 3 years.  My point was that in the postseason, when the Celtics get to game-plan for the same team repeatedly, teams without a dominant interior defense (read Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum/Pau Gasol) had no chance to slow down Rondo and that his numbers reflect that phenomenon precisely.  Below, I've re-created the chart and added in Rondo's numbers for round 1 this year against a Knicks team that has zero interior defense:


09 March/April 12.7 7.5 4.7 1.6 2.3
09 Round 1 19.4 11.6 9.3 2.7 2.1
09 Round 2 14.3 8.0 10.1 2.3 3.3
10 March/April 12.8 9.5 4.4 1.9 3.3
10 Rounds 1 & 2 18.0 11.1 6.3 2.1 3.4
10 Rounds 3 & 4 13.9 7.8 5.0 1.8 2.7
11 March/April 10.0 9.1 4.0 2.0 2.6
11 Round 1 19 12 7.3 1 3.8


And once again, the actual results look like a carbon-copy of what we could have predicted based solely on match-up and history.  As far as I could tell, "what can we expect from Rondo in the postseason?" was the biggest question that most Celtics supporters had entering the playoffs based on his perceived lack-luster play down the stretch after Perkins was traded and/or he battled with plantar fasciitis.  But as you can see from the chart, Rondo's late-season performance was almost exactly of the level that it always is in March/April.  And while this year it's plantar fasciitis, Rondo has had ouchy injuries to his feet/ankles to end the last two seasons as well.

So again, my point is to de-mystify things.  It is easy to get caught up in the narrative and drama that permeates the way that ESPN or the internet covers the NBA.  They want to sell a story, and "Rondo is mad about the trade of his best friend!" makes a much better story than..."well, he's playing about the way that he always plays late in seasons".  But the latter is much closer to true in this case...and as we saw in the first round, his production was EXTREMELY predictable based purely on history and matchups without having to rely on a mystical switch.

Conclusion: I could have continued with more examples.  Time ran out on me before I could give any more Realistic Optimism posts before the playoffs began, but my fourth such post was going to point out that team-defense of the type we play is VERY transferable to the postseason, which was another reason to expect this team to be elite (as opposed to a team like the Bulls, whose defensive strengths may not translate as well).  I had a fifth one planned to talk about our big men, and how they should also look much better in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. And I probably could have kept going from there, but again, I ran out of time and really...if I haven't made my point with the three examples I did give, another two or three probably wouldn't have made much difference.

I've already given this disclaimer several times in this post, and I'll give it again now: I didn't rigorously prove anything.  You can't prove anything with a 4-game sample.  Also, basketball has extremely unpredictable elements such as injury that can't really be accounted for over very short periods.  We couldn't have predicted, for example, that Amare Stoudemire would wrench his back or that Billups would have to sit the last 3 games.  And we'll never really know how things would have played out had those things not happened.

But the point I'm trying to make is that these days we have a LOT of useful information at our fingertips with which to make analyses and predictions that go much more in-depth than the 30-second drama/narrative blurbs favored in today's media.  And, more relevant to those on this site, one doesn't have to depend on Green-tinted glasses and/or hope in a mystical switch that the Celtics may or may-not be able to flip when they want to play championship caliber ball.  This Celtics team is built for the postseason much more than the regular season, and a reasonable examination of how the postseason differs from the regular season yields very strong evidence to those ends.

Bottom line, we don't have to just cross our fingers and hope that our guys can continue to find some mysterious switch.  The way this team swept the Knicks was extremely predictable based entirely on elements that have little-to-nothing to do with a switch.

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