While the Celtics season looks like Morse code with the euphoria of unexpected wins dashed away with the dots of ugly losses, it's not time to send out an SOS. Boogie Cousins is not a life preserver. At 19-17, Boston is treading water but doesn't need to take drastic measures to right the ship. Some thoughts on the Celtics' recent struggles:
Utilize depth. Vets have spoken up about the lack of a rotation, so just play everybody. Don't go twelve deep, but go back to the 10-man unit that started the season. Over the last 5 games, Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner, and Jae Crowderare all averaging 34+ minutes with Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, the injured but returning Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jared Sullinger chipping in between 20 and 25. The games have been modestly spread out over nine nights so overplaying some of the guys has been a luxury Stevens has gone to, but the strength of this roster is still depth.
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Avery Bradley's absence has certainly been an issue, but it's allowed Smart to use those minutes to get back into playing shape. AB will surely get minutes when he returns tonight against the Grizzlies and the rotation will stretch from 7 to 8, but with the Celtics facing a dreaded two weeks of nine games including three back-to-backs-with-travel, let's see more of Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko. Boston is third in the NBA in pace at 100.81 possessions per 48 minutes and they'll need all hands on deck to bring that energy every night.
And there's the curious case of David Lee who has picked up three DNP-CD's since being told by Stevens that he was out of the rotation. That was surprising news to me to say the least. Not since Keith Bogans was in Boston (and then quickly out of Boston) can I remember a player being told flat out that he wasn't going to see the floor. Lee, the consummate pro, has said all the right things and not demanded a trade. To me, he's still a candidate for playing time. Stevens has talked about how one of the separating factors of whether a player plays or does not is their ability to elevate their teammates. Lee has been Boston's best passing big man despite his negative plus/minus. He's a liability on defense, but this is just one of those situations where the analytics might be wrong.
Share the ball in the third quarter to avoid a letdown. In the past five games, the Celtics have been outscored in the third quarter by a total of 29 points including big letdowns against the Bulls, Nets, and Lakers. In all five games, Boston was either up or at the most, down by 2 at the half. At the beginning of the year, Boston struggled in the first quarter of games, but that's been addressed largely by inserting Thomas into the starting lineup. The irony is that he might be the center of the Celtics' new problem in the third.
For whatever reason, the third quarter has been Thomas' worst of late. Over the last five games, he's averaged his most FGA's in any quarter at 6.4. That's over twice as many as anybody else on the team. Unfortunately, he's shooting 31.3%. It could be opposing teams keying in on his teammates or Thomas trying to shoulder the load as the game progresses, but it's a trend that needs to stop. It's not like there's any threat that he's going to get pulled early; he's averaging 10.5 minutes in the quarter.
The Celtics are one of the most "passiest" teams in the league, averaging the 8th most passes per game at 322.5. They're 7th in the league in assists and 6th in points scored via assist. However, come the third quarter and fourth quarter, their assist numbers are way down since December 30th. Some of that could be attributed to missed shots and tired legs, but that shouldn't affect ball movement. If Brad Stevens elects to extend to rotation, Boston could benefit more from his read-and-react system rather than rely so heavily on Thomas.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Nooney suggests that they're taking some bad threes and other bloggers have lowlighted their low percentages, but that shouldn't stop them from letting it fly. There's a natural tendency to stop what isn't working, but the ability to stretch the floor is one of the Celtics' biggest strengths and they're just going to have to shoot themselves out of this slump. The new year hasn't been kind to Boston behind the line (22.6%), but for the season, the team has been trending up (30% in October, 31.9% in November, 34.9% in December).
Many of the key players are shooting better than their career averages (Crowder 34.9% this season/32.4% career, Avery Bradley 38.2%/36.4%, Jerebko 39.4%/34.7%, Olynyk 39.3%/36.1%) and it's a weapon they have to continue to use in order to make their offense work. It's not like their success behind the arc is the difference between winning or losing either. In their 19 wins, they're averaging 9.2 3PM on 33.9% shooting vs. 8.3 3PM on 29.9% in their 17 losses. They're 7th in the league in attempts but only 27th in shooting percentage. That may sound like a fool's errand, but this is the way Brad Stevens wants to play. When he first started over two years ago, fans scratched their heads with the number of 3's Jared Sullinger and Rajon Rondo, historically bad outside shooters, were taking, but it's a process.
Sullinger's three-point shooting hasn't improved over the last three seasons and that's possibly played a little bit of a role in Olynyk supplanting him in the starting lineup. But the fact remains that if you're going to play for Stevens and play a lot, that has to be part of your arsenal if you're a big man in order to take advantage of the NBA's illegal defense rules.
Don't panic. Finally, consider the bigger picture. This is the third year post-Big Three, but really the first true rebuilding season. You could even argue that the rebuilding really doesn't start until next summer when the stockpile of draft picks and ocean of cap space becomes available. We had all hoped that the team would be able to ride the momentum from last year's playoff run with most of the roster returning, but there have been some growing pains. Every great win (road blow outs in Oklahoma City and Houston) can be paired with an embarrassing loss (two to Brooklyn and crushing L's in Orlando and Atlanta). They've been competitive in the improved Eastern Conference at 14-12 but a disappointing 9-10 in the Garden. They sport the second best defensive in the league but have an offense on par with lottery teams.
But there's hope. According to ESPN's BPI Playoff Odds, the Celtics are 6th in the East with a 89.8% chance to make the playoffs. Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System has them 6th. Ainge is carefully scouring the league for potential deals, but won't jeopardize the future of the franchise on a quick fix. Boston's rookie class of 2015 are tearing up the D-League and could be called up for meaningful minutes if a trade can be made to consolidate the roster. And if you're looking long long term, July's draft is chock full of pure wing scorers that could help right away.
There's going to be some uncertainty surrounding the Celtics with the impending trade deadline less than six weeks away, but Stevens has started to identify players that he trusts in his system and that should stabilize them as we approach February 18th. That should make it easier for all you FanDuelers out there. If you're not playing FanDuel, you can sign up here and join tonight's one-day fantasy league where half the teams win money!