The Boston Celtics have struggled at times this year. Some of those struggles have been due to injuries, but for the most part the early season struggles were due to the workhorses being out of shape. The 66-game season was sprung on the team in an instant, and there wasn't nearly enough time for the C's to get back into the gym and prepare themselves for strong start (like they had last season). Instead, perhaps with the way this season has taken place the Celtics are better fit for a late-season peak. Their defensive numbers are better since the rough start, their offensive numbers are better as well, and Paul Pierce is playing like the Paul Pierce we've all come to expect -- an All-Star. Let's take a deeper look.
The first two stats I'll throw out there I will leave open to interpretation from you, the reader.
- The C's offensive efficiency is at 99.4, which is 20th in the league. The league average is 100.2.
- The C's defensive efficiency is at 94.6, which is 3rd in the league. The league average is 100.2.
The Celtics have improved from there terrible start shooting the ball (as a team) to have an eFG% of 49.85, which is good for eighth best in the NBA. The league average is 48.2. On the contrary, the Celtics's are holding their opponents to a league-best 44.58 eFG%. The defense is there. It may not be on a championship level yet, but it is effective. Certainly those numbers are flawed, though. With all of the C's great defensive numbers you have to take into account that the league's shooting numbers are down greatly compared to this time last season. Teams are scoring less, players are shooting worse (save guys like LeBron, etc), and as a whole the league just has not been in shape enough to put together a fantastic product. Will that change over the course of the season? Absolutely.
However, I don't think the fact that teams will begin shooting better will change the stifling effects of the Boston defense. This team has for the most part locked in defensively. I've seen better defensive rotations from everyone, better man-to-man defense from everyone, and even KG has been playing pretty great defense -- something that is obviously not unexpected from a guy has been on the NBA All-Defensive First Team a total of nine times. The Celtics are also holding teams to a league best (as in, the lowest percentage in the entire league) 28% from beyond the three-point arc. This is greatly better than the league average of 34.3%. the C's perimeter defense hasn't been lacking by any means over the course of the past three years, but to put it into perspective: the C's held opponents to 34% (2nd in the NBA) from long distance last year, 34.2% in 2009-10, and 34.9% during the 2008-2009 season. Yes, again, the numbers are probably skewed because teams aren't shooting as well this season, but if anything close to this pace continues in terms of perimeter defense then Boston will greatly augment their success as the season continues.
The C's are defending the three-point line well, but they're also shooting pretty well from that range, too. Boston is shooting a league-best 40% from beyond the arc compared to the league average of 34.3%. That's fantastic. The league average last season was 35.8%, and the Kings shot a league-best 39.7%. So, certainly 3FG% is not the leading indicator in a team's success, because, well we all know how well the Kings did last year. Still, for a team like the Celtics who scores the 23rd lowest amount of points per game in the NBA (96.5), shooting well from beyond the arc is a much warranted necessity in order for this team to continue success. They aren't going to beat you at the basket on most nights. Being an efficient team from mid-range and beyond is the recipe for this team's continued success if they want to continue building upon what they've done over the past 15 games.
Having looked a little bit at the statistics behind the team itself, now let's look at Paul Pierce -- All-Star. Since January 22nd against Washington when he scored 34 points to signify to fans and his teammates that he was back and in shape finally he has averaged 22.1 points per game, 7.3 assists per game, and 6.4 rebounds per game. Those are fantastic numbers. He has been shooting so much better than his first week or so back from his heel injury, and it has shown in the C's recent success. As he goes so goes the Celtics. Yea, sure, the entire team was flat against Toronto after a tough loss the prior night to the Lakers. But he scored 12 points and had one rebound. That won't do it. Pierce is actually the 14th best isolation player in the league according to mySynergySports.com. He is averaging .97 points per play during isolation, and he has been involved in 64 such plays. Out of those 64 plays he has attempted 48 shots, and made 22 of them -- 22 of 48 (45.8%). Pierce has also been pretty lethal in transition. He's shooting 17-36 (47.2%) in plays involving him in transition, and scoring 1.17 points per play while going 6-12 (50%) from beyond the arc. Defensively, Pierce has been great as well. he is the 11th best defender in the league when it comes to defending the ball handler on pick-and-roll situations (this according to mySynergySports.com). Pierce is allowing his match-ups to shoot 7-26 (26.9%) from the field, and they are only averaging a low of .58 points per play against Pierce. He's been great and barring injury he'll undoubtedly continue to get better as the year progresses. His eye is on the prize, and he knows just how hard he and the rest of this team will have to work for it.
Another player that has been getting a lot of attention recently is rookie JaJuan Johnson. Yes, he hasn't played a ton of minutes. He does need to improve defensively and bulk up as the season goes along and most definitely during the off-season. But he has been taking advantage of every opportunity given to him. Doc Rivers has said time and time again that JaJuan has a jumper that can absolutely be a weapon for him in this league. We've seen why. Johnson has played a total of 101 minutes this season and has scored 50 points (an average of 1.02 points per play). He hasn't rebounded well, but then again, those numbers are slightly skewed as well because the stints that he has played have been very short and sweet. He's shooting well, though, and that's ultimately what Rivers wants to see from him initially. If he can take advantage of these minutes and continue to contribute offensively, then the rest will come with time. JaJuan is shooting 23-43 (53.5%) from the field. His most successful play has been when he is the "roll man" on the pick-and-roll. He is shooting 5-8 (62.5%, 1.25 points per play) in these situations, and six of eight of these chances have been mid-range jumpers. he's also quite successful cutting. He's been involved in nine plays as a cutter and shot 4-7 (57.1%, 1.11 points per play) from the field. JaJuan will continue to see minutes as long a Brandon Bass is out, and if he continues to fit in within the offense (that means hitting his jumpers and not making terrible mistakes defensively) I think he will find a decent spot in the rotation. For now, it's just encouraging to see a rookie get some playing time and capitalize on his opportunities.
This season has seen many ups and many downs already for Boston fans. It's times like these where we are thankful for the years of success that this organization has put together, because quite frankly no one knows how much longer this current team will be successful. Time has a way of making you respect the past, and appreciate the present. As Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen continue to try to work out the kinks on this team with the help of Doc Rivers, it is a necessity to sit back and appreciate what they have accomplished. They aren't through in Boston, yet. I don't think that, they don't think that, and recently they haven't given us any reason not to think otherwise. So let's enjoy them for what they're worth, encourage them along the way, and cherish these seemingly uncertain. This team can still win, and they're finally showing it.