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The little things: how the Boston Celtics have become one of the NBA's most improved teams

On Saturday, the Celtics beat the Eastern Conference favorite Bulls. The game didn't feature stars Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo or rookie sensation Marcus Smart, but it showed how Boston has made adjustments around the margins to become one of the NBA's most improved teams.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Boston got to .500 with their first quality win against the then conference-leading Chicago Bulls.  It capped off a nice six game run the Celtics have had to start the season.  Tim tweeted out some of Boston's stellar numbers so far:

And if you want an even deeper dive in the stats, check out Kevin's post that looked at some of Boston's player tracking through from' SportsVU data.  To say the least, it's been a huge makeover from last year, but there's stuff that doesn't show up in box scores and numbers that can't be quantified by even the most sophisticated cameras in NBA stadiums.

Despite their impresssive start on the offensive end, the Celtics are 27th in the league in opponents scoring at 106.0 ppg and a slightly better 23rd at 106.7 if you adjust the numbers to reflect points per 100 possessions, but as Jay King of points out, they have faced 3 out of the top 5 best offenses in Dallas, Toronto, and Brooklyn (Houston is 14th).  Before training camp started, Avery Bradley talked about how the team could be a top-10 defense and the preseason stinginess of allowing only 91.9 points (2nd only to New Orleans and Anthony Davis at 89.4) made it look like they could deliver on that promise.  So far, that hasn't happened, but there are signs that the team is improving.

First quarters have plagued Boston to the tune of 29.0 points in the first twelve minutes (26th in the NBA), but they've made up for the absence of a true rim protector with very aggressive perimeter defense.  Take for example their game against the Bulls.  Without Rondo and Smart, Avery usually drew Chicago's quickest and strongest guard on the floor.

Avery Bradley vs. Jimmy Butler

In this first clip, check out all the work AB does before Butler finally gets the ball and shoots a tough fall away with the shot clock expiring.  He denies the first entry pass from Kirk Hinrich, re-adjusts his position and fronts Butler when Gasol tries a different passing angle, and doesn't bite on the pump fake.  That'll go into the box score as a missed shot by Butler, but it was Bradley's effort on D throughout the entire possession that forced that miss.

Jeff Green vs. Doug McDermott

Here, Chicago likes to use a torture wheel of screens to free up their shooters.  Green has to fight through three separate screens to chase down Doug McDermott and forces him to catch the ball beyond the three point line.  Green's effort also allows Sully to stay home on Noah without a show.  This isn't defense in the traditional sense of going one-on-one with an opposing player, but Green's ability to read angles and quickly make up space blows up this play for the Bulls.

Jeff Green vs. Jimmy Butler

Deny, deny, deny.  Chicago's offense, like Boston's, has multiple options in a single set, but when the Celtics on-ball defenders eliminate outlets to a passer, he's forced to go to the third or fourth option late in the shot clock.  Bradley and Turner do a good job of sticking with Hinrich and Brooks, Olynyk dares him to shoot that mid-range jumper, and finally, Noah has to go to Butler who throws up a prayer in a crowded key.

With every good team, it's starts on the defensive end, but like every good coach will tell you, the defensive possession doesn't end until you secure the rebound.  On the glass, Olynyk and Sullinger have done their part on the boards averaging a respectable 7.3 and 8.3 rpg respectively, but Stevens has made it a team responsibility to gang rebound in order to get the team in transition.  The Celtics rank 7th in contested rebounding percentage and against the bigger Bulls, that team mentality gave them a 45-38 edge off the glass.

Guard rebounding

You'll see that on most missed shots, the Celtics will have four guys in the paint to grab the rebound.  Kevin alluded to this in his article, but the wing players have cleaned up with the bigs doing a good job boxing out their men.  Rondo probably won't reach Oscar Robertson's goal of averaging a triple double, but he lead the team in rebounds in its first three games and is averaging 8 boards a game.  With the guards rebounding the ball, that feeds right into the team's transition game.

Boston is currently sixth in fast break points at 16 ppg.  That number has pushed the Celtics to the top of the NBA in points in the paint at 47.0.  The roster doesn't have the traditional make up of a team that wants to run with explosive athletes on the wings (Houston, Utah) or run-and-gun guards to push the pace (Golden State, Phoenix), but there does seem to be a concerted effort to move the ball up in transition and attack the paint.


Fast break points don't always come in the form of 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 showtime alley oops.  Boston ranks in the middle of the pack in forcing turnovers, but they've become very good in the secondary break off a rebound or even a made basket.  Here, with four defenders back on D and Joakim Noah trailing the play, Evan Turner drives the ball towards the strong side of the defense and engages Butler, Dunleavy, and Gasol with the hard push.  That creates a lane for Sullinger for an easy lay-up.


Tyler Zeller is by no means a track star, but for a seven footer, he can get up and down the floor.  Yes, the assist from Avery and the Zeller's layup results on points on the board in that one game, but the cumulative effect of Zeller's uptrending playing time of 6->19->8->6->12->21 could be a boon for the entire team moving forward.  Right now, eight Celtics are averaging 15+ minutes in Stevens' rotation but if Zeller can continue rim running, consistently be a target for Rondo in the pick and roll, and keep being a twin tower threat with Olynyk, he'll add depth and dimension to an already deep and versatile team.  That may not seem like a big deal now, but as the season turns 20, 40, and 60-games old, the wear and tear will take it's toll and having bench contributors like Zeller will pay dividends later.

Although the improvement from last year seems drastic, it's the little things here and there that have made all the difference for these Boston Celtics.  There wasn't a landscape-shifting trade that overhauled the roster or a coaching hire that drastically changed the teams philosophies.  Instead, Stevens has catered his system to his players' strengths and subsequently made the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course, the rebuild is an ongoing process.  In Rondo and Smart's absence, Phil Pressey has seen playing time in the last two games and filled in admirably.  However, there's always room for improvement.  Pressey has shot a combined 2-for-8 from three in his 29 minutes of playing time against Indiana and Chicago.  Most fans probably cringe at the idea of Pressey continuing to chuck up shots at that rate, but not Stevens.  Adding a three-point shot to the repertoire of a player that won't see a lot of playing time on a healthy roster might seem like a small thing, but right now, it's the little things that have been making a difference.

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