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Hitting the hole: Celtics shouldn't drive to score, but drive to dish

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The Celtics haven't been successful in the paint, but on Friday night against the Hawks, their interior passing got them some easy buckets around the rim.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

There's no point in sugarcoating it: Boston is not a good finishing team in the paint.  The Celtics rank 11th in the league at finishing 8 feet or closer to the rim, only scoring on 53.2% of their chances.  By comparison, the Clippers and Spurs both shoot almost ten points higher at 62%.  What's promising is that they rank 7th in generating field goal attempts near the rim (8 feet or less), but eight games into the season, they're just not making shots.  And here's a weird anomaly from Boston's box scores:

Outcome Total Points Drive Points Drives FGA FGM FG%
4 wins 108.8 13.3 13.3 4.5 12.5 36%
4 losses 94.8 21.3 21.3 7.3 15.8 46%

Strange, right?  In a nutshell, the Celtics have lost games trying to take the ball to the rim despite the larger volume of easy shots coupled with the higher shooting percentage.  There's an 8 point upswing and yet, that net positive has lead to four losses.  It's made sense that when Boston isn't making jump shots (29.8 points in wins vs. 16.3 points in losses when it comes to catch-and-shoot opportunities), but why does driving have an inverse effect?  It's an interesting phenomenon and I've got a couple of theories.

First and probably the most logical explanation is that this is just the by-product of a small sample size and the law of averages should even out as the season progresses.  The league median for driving FG% is around 44.7%.  The Celtics don't exactly have LeBron James or even Jeff Green taking it hard to the hole, but they won't be shooting 36% on drives by the end of the year.  Despite his size, Isaiah Thomas has been a very good finisher at the rim and both Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley have shown glimpses of getting to the rack before their recent injuries.  Second, my guess is that when the Celtics have found themselves in first quarter holes, they've been more aggressive and forced the issue in the paint.  That's driven up their drive totals and naturally, points off of drives totals.

In Friday's impressive win against Atlanta, it struck me how effective Boston was at driving into gaps and finding open cutters and trailers for easy buckets.  The offense looked great and they did such a good job of penetrating and not forcing a bad shot.  In the Celtics' seven previous games, they had no more than two assists off of drives.  That's a very low number considering how much of a drive-and-kick point guard Isaiah Thomas was expected to be in the second unit.  In his defense, he hasn't exactly been surrounded by shooters since being inserted into the starting lineup, but his assist numbers should be higher off the bounce.  Versus the Hawks, the Celtics had an impressive five assists coming off of drives and many of them didn't come from Thomas.  While he acted as a catalyst on many of them, it was the bigs of Boston that became willing drivers and passers in the paint.

This is early in the game as Thomas probes the defense and dribbles down the baseline.  It seems like a casual stroll, but the defense sucks in, and IT4 finds Amir Johnson for a loooooooong three pointer.

In the pace and space offense, there's an emphasis on the bigs not only to be able to shoot from the outside, but also to put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble.  Tyler Zeller had not seen action for two straight games, but was very effective in his six-minute stint on Friday.  He takes a pass from Jae Crowder, reads the overplay from Mike Scott, and immediately drives to find an open David Lee for the layup.

Another big-to-big find between Johnson and Zeller.  Amir uncharacteristically pops on a pick, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver over commit on a close, and Johnson drives and finds Zeller for the dunk.

Jae Crowder is going to get the credit here for the great cut and bucket, but check out Jared Sullinger and his very smart back pick on a good defender in Thabo Sefolosha.  As soon as Crowder reads Thomas' drive, Crowder uses the Sully pick to go back door.

Thomas initiates the breakdown of the defense, Marcus Smart causes it to collapse even more, and Johnson mop up with the finger roll.

This may have been the play of the game.  After Brad Stevens saw a crucial possession going awry, he called a timeout and drew up an ATO for Crowder and Johnson.  It's not exactly a pick-and-roll, but that cut by Thomas off the in bounds created just enough misdirection for Crowder to hard charge towards the rim and find a rolling Johnson behind him.

Check out the awful clips from Wednesday's loss to Indiana.  These cuts and passes weren't happening against the Pacers in that fourth quarter of death.  This back-to-back against the Oklahoma City Thunder today and Houston Rockets tomorrow will prove to be a test for this developing offense.  Both are fairly big on the front line, but if Boston can aggressively attack and effectively cut and pass, they could come away with two wins on this mini-West Coast trip.