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Small ball effect: Celtics' defense hasn't been great, but the offense has improved

Boston's MO has been its stingy defense, but over the last seven games since Brad Stevens started utilizing more small ball lineups, the offense has soared.

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Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

With the Celtics giving up 115, 118, and 117 points in their last three games, there's legitimate concern that small ball has hurt Boston's defense, but Danny Ainge didn't seem to concerned during his interview with Toucher & Rich yesterday.  The team ran into two hot offenses on the road in Dallas and Toronto and as disappointing as those losses were, the bright side is that the team was more than competitive in both those games.  Since Brad Stevens implemented more small ball lineups, the Celtics have been pretty hot themselves.

Here's the macro view.  In the seven games since that loss in Memphis, the team has averaged a 108.0 offensive rating and a 106.5 defensive rating with a 1.4 net.  They've loss four gut-wrenching games by a combined total of only 20 points.  In the 36 games prior, the team had an offensive rating of 100.8 and a defensive rating of 97.9 for a net of 2.9.  Yes, the defense has suffered, but the offense has picked up significantly, too.  There are a couple of bright spots of note:

Isaiah Thomas & Marcus Smart: We know about IT4's overall sparkling play that should make him an All-Star in Toronto, but his recently improved production makes him a lock in my humble opinion.  In more small ball lineups--particularly with another ball handler in the lineup like Smart--Thomas has been very effective off the ball and more efficient.  By Stevens' standards, that makes him an All Star, right?  His assist totals are slightly down, but he's shooting a whopping 46.3% during this seven-game stretch after starting the season at 41.1%.  His three point shooting is up to 44.4% from 32.1% which has helped him average 27 PPG.  Check out his shot charts:

Pre-small ball

Post-small ball

Not only is he shooting better, but he's getting more shots at the rim and shooting more from beyond the arc.  Per, his usage rates are about the same pre- and post-small but, but a higher percentage of Thomas' FGM are being assisted.  Some of that can be attributed to having Marcus Smart on the floor.  Here's Danny again on Smart:

"When you have a guy who plays that hard and with that kind of passion, who mixes it up with the 7-footers inside and just instills his will on the game, that passion is contagious. Everyone sees it and I think he does elevate the intensity of our team."

Smart's numbers aren't exactly Thomasian, but his minutes have steadily increased as he gets back into game shape after returning from injury in late December.  As he gets back his legs, he's shown flashes on the offensive end; his shooting woes are widely documented, but he doesn't get enough credit for pushing the ball up the court and forcing the issue in the paint.  His triple-double against the Suns was affirmation of his nicheless niche.  For now, he's part-irritant, part-instigator, a do everything player that always finds a way to affect the game.

Kelly Olynyk: By now, you've seen the controversy over Tommy's Dirk comparison and the tweeted info to back it up:

And the highlights:

The big fella has been averaging an insane 52.3 FG% and 59.3% from behind the arc.  He's settling less for the mid-range shot and either stretching the floor from three or driving to the rim.  You can see his confidence growing in January and this could be the end of timid Olynyk.  In the last seven games, KO has the highest net rating (9.2) and Player Impact Estimate (56.4) when he's on the floor of any of the Celtics.  Olynyk isn't the fleetest of foot or most athletic, but the team plays faster when he's on the court, too.  Bun game or flowing locks, we're starting to see the potential in Kelly come to bear.

Steals: It's a defensive statistic, but one of Boston's staples has been their ability to generate points off steals and turnovers.  For the season, they rank 4th in the league in steals despite their steal totals dipping in December.  However, they've seemed to regain their mojo back.  They've averaged 9.3 steals over their recent stretch including a 17 steal night against the Grizzlies.  For the season, they've averaged 14.4 fast break points but with Smart and Bradley both healthy and theft-happy, that number is up to 19.4.

The big question is whether or not the Celtics can be this good on offense and defense.  As Kevin points out, there's reason to believe that the defense should improve.  Like Danny said, it's just been a rough stretch, but with games coming up against a handful of non-playoff teams, Boston should be able to improve their numbers and more importantly, their record before the All Star break.  And I know I say this at the end of seemingly every article, but with only twelve games and less than a month before the trade deadline, how does any of this affect Ainge's goals when it comes to future deals?  Does he target players that fit small ball?  Does he look to trade players that aren't exactly ideal for Stevens' system?  Seems fitting to quote the late great Johnny Most: "we wait for it with bated breath."

Thankfully, FanDuel is all about offensive stats, so now is a good time to pick a bunch of Celtics for your team.  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!

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