Putting things in perspective
Monday's (very winnable) game against the Charlotte Hornets was the team's 20th tilt of the season - the infamous "20 game mark" that so many of us cling to in order to preserve our patience...before jumping to preemptive, irrational conclusions. But, the team came out flat - for whatever reason - unable to muster the early game energy that has allowed them to become one of the better first half team's in the association.
It's easy to get sucked into the abyss of catch-phrase analysis. Hearing the "a full 48 minutes" hook over and over again can dull the senses when it comes to actually understanding what is and isn't working. Not playing "a full 48 minutes" is pretty much the industry standard for describing the cause of most losing team's non-winning ways. But, Boston is somewhat of an anomaly in that the team performs at a level in the first half unlike that of it's contemporaries, record-wise.
Looking just at the first half of games, Boston has drastically improved their defensive efficiency over the past 10 games. Their surprisingly stout first half ranking belays not only improvement, but a defensive "upside" that goes beyond level of competition. Though their 2nd Half and 4th Quarter numbers continue to be an issue, the team's total defense is clearly on the rise.
The real issue has been the sizable regression in the team's offensive efficiency. The Celtics were an absolutely scorching second half team early on, but have become offensively anemic as their defensive intensity has risen. Soft logic may lead many to assume that the added attention on defense has sapped the team of it's offensive energy. That line of thinking bears watching, but is not supported by the numbers.
Over the last 10 games Boston ranks 1st in pace, at 101.24 possessions per 48 minutes. That ranking stays consistent in the 2nd Half and 4th Quarter of games as well. Boston does decline in a couple of key areas, however. The team drops from 18th to 23rd in Effective Field Goal percentage from the first half to the second half, though the difference in percentage is the equivalent of less than two made baskets. While the team does take less total shots and more threes in the second half of games, pace of play and the "eye ball test" suggest fatigue isn't the culprit.
The real culprit is in the "hustle" stats. The Celtics lead the league in turnovers per 100 possessions in the 4th quarter, at 20.3. Despite their overall passing wizardry, Boston's assist-to-turnover ratio ranks out at 18th vs. 30th, respectively. The team isn't crashing the offensive glass effectively and their turnover differential falls off the map. While they are able to maintain their high percentage of assisted baskets, the lack of players who "create their own shot" frequently leaves the team scrambling to make hay from distance. At this point the Green are generating less total shots, shooting from further away, and failing to convert a a high rate.
Simply put, the team isn't generating enough high percentage looks and isn't shooting a high percentage from the looks they are getting. The Celtics are caught in a push-pull scenario; they need experience to get the job(done), but they need the job to get the experience. The end result is a distinct lack of high percentage 3-point shooting to open up the interior and a quality interior presence to help free up perimeter shooters for cleaner looks. However, to do this the team needs more consistent play from Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley.
These two players are both the two best three point shooters on the team as well as having the potential for volume scoring in a complimentary role. Their ability to make a consistent impact from the perimeter and driving toward the basket will be essential to help unleash their most game-ready potential difference maker - Jared Sullinger.
Riding the Pork Chop Express
Sullinger may not be a bonafide "superstar" in the making, but he has the type of complete game that could help tip the scales, (no pun) when it comes to winning in crunch time and just falling short. Sullinger's outside shot has begun to fall with more regularity in recent weeks, which compliments his diversity of low post options well. Sullinger is seeing more time against more favorable match ups due to his increased range and shift in minutes toward a more Power Forward-centric usage along side Tyler Zeller.
Sullinger's ability to attack closeouts with ball handling and court vision allows him to make plays off the bounce, while his touch from the interior creates opportunities for using his body to create space for various hook shots, fall-aways, and the preferable good old fashioned layup. When the Express gets his backside in motion, the combination of his bulk, agility, and touch has garnered secondary defensive attention with more frequency.
Sullinger's 4th quarter quarter numbers, per 36 minutes, almost perfectly support how much his production impacts wins and losses. In the team's seven victories, Sullinger's 23.3 points, 16.1 shot attempts, and ZERO turnovers lead team among all players who've played over 30 minutes in the 4th quarter. Sullinger shoots a blistering 60% overall in "winning" time - including 75% from three alone. However, in the team's losses those numbers drop substantially, as Sullinger is only able to muster 17.7 points on 17.3 shots with 1.8 turnovers and a frigid 37.5% field goal rate topped off by an anemic 27.8% from three.
Entering his third season, Sullinger has an opportunity to improve on that inconsistency, stabilize the Green's 4th quarter attack, and lead them to victory. But to do so he is going to need to continue to work on his conditioning to sustain his relentless energy level with more frequency. Regardless of how often he dodges or deflects this criticism, his sub-30 minute per game average and rather pedestrian first half production averages suggest otherwise.
Both the coach and Sullinger seam to "save him" for the 4th quarter. Sullinger's 23.9% Usage Rate and 100 minutes played rank almost at the top of the heap as only Marcus "bang bang" Thornton uses more possessions. In the first half of all games Sullinger ranks 4th in minutes and ties for 3rd in usage at a ho-hum 20.3%.
But, before anyone discounts Sullinger's "potential" due to oversimplified assessments of athleticism, consider the career trajectory of another formerly portly pounder from the midwest - Zach Randolph:
Both players were top recruits coming out of high school, each ranked 1st in their class. Both players played in the same conference for team's known for their toughness, and both started earning real NBA minutes at the same age. Neither player was known as an elite athlete and in terms of conditioning, we can thank our lucky stars that Sullinger entered the league in vastly superior shape than Randolph did.
Despite this, each player was/has been able to overcome their limitations to progress into productive players over their early careers. Randolph enjoyed a massive advantage in minutes and usage over his Age 21 to 23 seasons, but with virtually identical productivity in many key areas. Sullinger's three point shot has developed at a much faster rate than Randolph's did, yet has not substantially altered the percentage of points he scores in the paint relative to Randolph.
Hard as it is to gauge by the naked eye, the work Sullinger put into the offseason has clearly improved his ability to produce more efficiently. His True Shooting percentage is superior to Randolph's at the same stage of their careers, despite Randolph's reputation as a down low banger extraordinaire. But, the next stop for the Pork Chop Express needs to be a greater frequency of his high end production over a greater volume of minutes played. Randolph is not a perfect player, but he is a player that is capable of winning his team games on any given night while contributing at a high level to wins every night.
Sullinger may not have Randolph's cast, but he certainly has it within him to be just as consistent a contributor on a nightly basis. To do so, he'll have to demand it of himself. From jump street Randolph was relentless in pursuit of reaching his ceiling, showing a tenacity that hasn't been evident on as consistent a basis with Sullinger. Randolph took what was his by force, burned some bridges along the way, but eventually found the situation that fit his top game. While Sullinger is in a better position to avoid some of the early career mistakes of Randolph, he's going to have to raise the bar for himself.
No big time baller with Sully's pedigree, age, and 4th quarter productivity was ever kept below 30 minutes per game and 25% usage for no reason.
I don't want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone's REALLY hoping makes it happen. I want you to be like the guy in the rated R movie, you know, the guy you're not sure whether or not you like yet. - Swingers