The Boston Celtics haven't felt this way in quite a while. You know, on a decent roll.
For much of this shortened season the Celtics have struggled. Injuries, lack of depth, and inexperience have inevitably gotten the best of Boston at many times this season. Since the All-Star break the Celtics have played sixteen games. They've won eleven. And while the Celtics have been without Chris Wilcox (recently waived) and Jermaine O'Neal, Doc and the rest of the coaching staff have found something with the shortened rotation involving Avery Bradley, Greg Stiemsma, Keyon Dooling, and at times Marquis Daniels. This team has shown grit and it's paying off.
The defensive intensity seems to have really picked up over the course of the last sixteen games. Every single game the Celtics have been presented with some sort of adverse situation, but they have usually found a way to overcome. Paul Pierce was in foul trouble for at least three of the games during Boston's west coast trip. Somehow, the Celtics were able to persevere. Stiemsma has emerged as a viable option to back-up Kevin Garnett at the center position. He even looks like he belongs in the NBA rather than appearing merely as a shot-blocker.
Defensively speaking the Celtics have been superb. They're still the best team (at least according to statistics) in perimeter defense. Boston is holding opponents to a three-point field goal percentage of 30.9%. Teams are also averaging the fourth-lowest amount of three-point attempts per game against Boston. A good bit of that has to do with the pace Boston forces the other team to play which in turn lessens the amount of possessions available for opponents to even attempt three-pointers. Still, that's phenomenal for an older team that has prided itself on its staunch defense in every aspect of its game for so many years.
Boston isn't just finding success defending on the perimeter, though. As a team they are holding opponents to a 45.92 effective field goal percentage (eFG%). That's the third-lowest percentage in the NBA. They're holding teams to the lowest assist rate in the league as well. Assist rate is merely the percentage of possessions that end in an assist. The league average is 19.7, but Boston is holding its opponents to a rate of 17.61. The Celtics are also right near the top of the league in defensive efficiency (DefEff). The league average is 101.3, and Boston is firmly planted in fourth with a DefEff of 97.2, according to hoopdata.com. The teams ahead of Boston are none other than Miami, Chicago, and Philly. All three of those teams will be in the playoffs and contending for a spot in the Finals.
The Celtics are still struggling in quite a few other areas, but it's not like this team is going to get much better with these deficiencies. The Celtics will have rebounding problems until there's new blood in the frontcourt that can hang and bang with the best big men in the league. Kevin Garnett is holding his own on the glass recently, and his numbers over this sixteen game stretch have been nothing short of great. The Celtics can rebound pretty well defensively when they aren't facing the Heat, Bulls, and other teams that will be their main competition in the playoffs.
Still, the Celtics have the seventh-worst defensive rebounding rate in the league at 71.51. The league average is 73. Boston isn't much better on the offensive glass. In fact they're worse. Boston is dead last in the league in offensive rebounding rate (ORR). The league average is 26.9, but the Celtics are putting up an astoundingly low 20.91 ORR. That's bad. Part of this has to do with the way the Celtics play offense. Much of their offense seems predicated on running through sets, getting a shot, and trotting down the other way. Many times you can see at least three of Boston's five players on the floor already turned or at least not focused on fighting for an offensive board once the shot is in the air. This won't win a title. The Celtics have to make a conscious effort to rebound better in every way. And I don't mean to burst any bubbles, but Ryan Hollins isn't the answer to that equation.
The Celtics still aren't getting to the rim very often, but that has everything to do with the way the Celtics attack. The days where Kevin Garnett and others pound the ball at the basket are gone. This team takes the fourth-highest percentage of shots from 10-15 (11.6%) and 16-23 (29.6%) feet in the NBA. The C's are last in the league in percentage of shots taken from inside ten feet. That's just not a formula that's going to provide for a lot of foul calls, and that's why Boston's free throw rate is 26.3 compared to the league average of 28.1. Still, they've been producing well enough to get the job done. The Celtics have come into each game knowing they don't have the "dogs" to hang with every young team in the league. Instead, they come in and make the game ugly during the first half. They are throwing teams out of their usual rhythm early in the game, and then refusing to allow them to get back into it as the game progresses. The game against the Clippers on March 12th is a prime example. That is the "M.O." of this team.
One of the players who has developed nicely over Boston's past sixteen games has been Greg Stiemsma. His stats aren't going to jump off the stat sheet and amaze you, but his progression since the All-Star break (and over the course of the entire year) has been fun to watch. He's seen his playing time gradually increase since both Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O'Neal went down with injuries, and he is cashing in magnificently. If I had to pinpoint a certain point where I saw a change in Greg, though, it would have to be an unfortunate moment for him. Blake Griffin dunked on Greg a couple times, at one point stared him down, and then slammed the basketball into Greg's chest. Greg tossed it back, got a technical foul, and the rest is history. It seemed like that really ignited Greg. There's been a different sense of aggression from him, a sense of confidence that wasn't present before.
Defensively he's been pretty superb in certain areas. He's the seventh-best spot-up defender (at least in terms of points per play and field goal percentage) according to MySynergySports.com. He is only allowing a measly .58 points per play on spot-up attempts where he is defending. He's holding his match-ups to 10/34, 29.4% shooting in those situations. Overall, Greg has been the primary defender on 127 plays this season, and he's holding his opponents to .72 points per play. His match-ups are shooting just 37-102 from the floor, or 36.3%.
Those stats don't even begin to account for just how well he has picked up his intensity in other areas. He is rotating much better on defense. He still misses a few here or there, but for the most part Greg has been able to play with either Brandon Bass or Kevin on the floor and fit in quite nicely -- especially over the past few games. His rebounding has even gotten a bit better. That's something that should come with time, but just having the confidence to know that he belongs in the NBA is a step in the right direction.
Greg has become known by most people around the league as a shot-blocker. His league-debut saw him rack up six blocks. And that wasn't a fluke. Greg has shown time and time again that his timing is fantastic when it comes to blocking two-point field goals. In fact, Greg is fourth in the entire NBA in block percentage (BLK%) (explained by basketball-reference.com as "an estimate of the percentage of opponent two-point field goal attempts blocked by the player while he was on the floor.") with a BLK% of 9.3. If he can keep putting up block numbers like that, keep rotating well on defense and playing within himself, and keep giving Doc good minutes then I think he will find himself another contract offer at season's end.
The Celtics are on a bit of a roll, and unlike the past few seasons they won't have the luxury of coasting into the playoffs. This team is going to have to fight for every win, and they'll need to fight for the highest seed possible, too. Boston is the seven seed right now, and 2.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks and the Indiana Pacers. They're only a half-game back of the lead in the Atlantic Division. The rotation may be dwindled and the players may not be the guys that are going to make the SportsCenter Top 10 every night, but the Boston Celtics are very much in the hunt in the Eastern Conference. These final eighteen games are going to be fun. Hang on tight, gang.