Three points. That’s one corner three to close out a quarter. That’s a couple of careless fouls in the penalty and some free throws. They seem inconsequential in the fabric of a 48-minute game, but sometimes, that’s the difference between winning and losing in the NBA.
The Celtics were 8th in the league last season in point differential at +3.2. That was good for 48 wins, but with such a thin margin of error, it could have easily been worse. For what it’s worth, they were 13-17 in games that had differential of three points or fewer in the final two minutes. A three-pointer or a made free throw here and there can mean everything before the buzzer.
So far, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens have approached the rebuild like a football team without its star quarterback: manage the game, play defense, and score just enough points to win. They tried recruiting Kevin Durant (with, ahem, Tom Brady), but he signed with Golden State, so they’ll enter the 2016-2017 season a lot like they ended last year. The defense should be better, but there are a few places where they could squeeze out more points.
The Celtics were third to last in 3P% last season, but they still shot the 11th-most 3PA’s per game. They were the worst shooting playoff team with an eFG% of 48.8%, but Brad Stevens’s offensive system depends on spacing the floor and perimeter shooting is vital in creating driving lanes and attacking the basket. Kelly Olynyk (40.5%) and Jonas Jerebko (39.8%) were the team’s standouts, and adding Al Horford (34.4%) to the front court gives Boston three stretch bigs that Stevens can utilize in traditional or small ball lineups.
The Celtics particularly had issues with their ball handlers and wings. Jae Crowder finished the season hitting 33.6% of his shots behind the arc, due in large part to a horrendous March and April when he was battling injuries. The departed Evan Turner was the picture of futility after suffering two month-long stretches without a three, but the real eye sore was Marcus Smart’s 25.3% 3P% on 4 attempts per game. He had his moments in the playoffs, but Smart had one of the worst shooting seasons ever.
But hope springs eternal in training camp, and so far, it looks like the team has addressed its perimeter shooting internally. In addition to adding Horford and getting a healthy Crowder back, there are reports that Smart has made adjustments to his shooting form:
"I tried to take as much of the hitch out of my shot as possible," Smart said. "I tried to get a quicker release. And just work on repetition. My dip was too far below my waist, therefore it was taking me a longer time to get my shot up and making it easy for a defender to contest me. [Defenders] ultimately made me change my shot a lot."
During the Green vs. White scrimmage, Danny Ainge told Tommy Heinsohn and Mike Gorman that Smart has primarily been playing off the ball with Terry Rozier assuming most of the ball-handling duties with the second unit. That should mean more spot-up looks for Smart. Last season, he shot an abysmal 22.3% on catch-and-shoot 3s, but he looked more comfortable last night, and hopefully, that translates into the regular season continuity.
Rozier shot a blistering 45.2% on 3s in six summer league games. It’s a small sample size, but many teammates including Al Horford and Marcus Smart have remarked on Rozier’s renewed confidence heading into his sophomore season. Confidence can be everything to a young player. He’ll have Evan Turner’s big shoes to fill as a playmaker off the bench, but he does provide an element that ET never had. Today after practice, Avery Bradley talked about Smart, Rozier, and the importance of their consistency:
"Including (Smart and) Terry, those guys just came into camp on a mission. They're shooting the ball very well and working on their games. And they just have to continue to do that so throughout the year they can play the same way, have that confidence this entire year. Because we need them to."
Young players often make the jump in their sophomore and junior years in the NBA, and it sounds like these could be breakout seasons for Boston’s bench back court.
More transition points
The rebuild has focused primarily on defense. Avery Bradley is the only holdover from the Doc/Big Three Era. The last few drafts have been headlined by NBA-ready defenders like Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and now Jaylen Brown. Ainge has targeted versatile defenders like Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko in trades, and Al Horford and Amir Johnson in free agency. This a defense-first team, but the beauty of basketball is that unlike in baseball or football, you can immediately turn good defense into instant offense.
Do the Celtics have another gear after having the third-highest pace last season? Sure. Replacing Jared Sullinger with Horford and filling Turner’s departure with young guns Rozier and Brown should make the defense “fly around” and, in turn, that should ignite the transition game. The Celtics were in the top ten in both points off turnovers and fast break points, and they could easily be a bucket or two better next year.
Jaylen Brown is raw, but he’s a freak athlete who can get out on the wing and finish in transition. He’s improved his handle and should also be able to make the right pass on the break. Rozier was one of the best rebounding guards last season, so expect him to grab defensive boards and immediately turn up the floor. Horford, on the other hand, was fourth in fast-break points among centers and also has the ability to lead the break as a ball handler.
Al Horford Effect in the half court
Management and teammates alike have been gushing about Horford’s presence on and off the floor. Ainge went as far as to compare him to Kevin Garnett in terms of presence and influence in the locker room. His career numbers don’t jump out of the box score, but he’s a perfect fit for the read-and-react system that Stevens has in place. In addition to being an above-average three-point shooter as a center, he’s a good pick-and-pop shooter at 44.4% in the mid-range and the second-best roll man in the league.
Last night, he gave us a small taste of his basketball IQ. Working above the break, he sets a big enough pick to force Jerebko to switch on Thomas and cuts back door on Rozier for the easy layup. Seems simple enough, but that’s a play that few of our bigs would have made last year.
So, maybe Smart and Rozier hit one or two more threes a game. Maybe having Brown’s athleticism and reckless abandon on the floor leads to a fast-break dunk that wasn’t there last year. Maybe Horford makes a cut or a pass for an easy two. That’s 2 or 5 or 7 or 10 points more. That could mean a few more wins here and there, home-court advantage in the first round, a confidence-building series win in the playoffs, an upset in the Conference Finals and Banner 1-
Sorry. I’ve got a case of trainingcampitis. Be warned because I think it’s contagious.