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The Celtics’ offense: how to succeed in the NBA by really really trying

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There were rumors that Russell Westbrook could have been a Celtic, and there are dreams that Anthony Davis could be in green. They’ve put up monster offensive numbers to start the season, but the Celtics have collectively been one of the best offenses in the league without a bona fide superstar.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If only it was this simple:

But so far, the team has responded. Check out their shot chart from their first three games:

More than 65% of their shots are coming from behind the three-point line or in the restricted area. In both cases, they’re hitting above the league average. Even when they’ve been forced to take long two-pointers, they’re hitting nearly half their looks in the mid-range.

How have they been so successful? Depth, speed, and unselfishness.

Nine players for the Celtics average 15 minutes or more in the rotation. That’s without Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart having played a single game. Here’s a telling statistic: only Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley have a usage rate of 20% or higher. Thomas leads the team at 29.5% with Bradley second at 22.9%. Comparatively speaking, usage rate monsters like Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis have dominated the ball for their respective teams with a usage rate hovering around 40%. They’ve put up huge numbers individually, but that kind of production seems unlikely in the long term.

The Celtics, on the other hand, are like sharks. More accurately, a school of sharks on the hunt. They’re in constant motion, and to some extent, that’s what has kept them alive and competitive over the last two seasons. Isaiah Thomas was an All-Star last year, and the addition of the understated Al Horford has eased some of the playmaking pressure on IT. But make no mistake: for Boston to be at its best, they have to be playing with pace-and-space at all times. That means going deep into their bench and playing at a furious pace.

Pace doesn’t necessarily mean number of possessions per game. Last year, the Celtics were third at 101.15 per game. Much of that was due to their smothering defense that turned teams over and generated easy fast break points. This year, they’re at 99.91 and haven’t really ramped things up on D. However, they’re still committed to making opposing teams move. Like a welterweight boxer, they’re not looking for a knock-out punch in the third round. It’s all about wearing out their opponent. When you watch tonight’s game against the older Bulls, make note of how much of the early action in their offensive sets is run just to burn out the legs of the opposing team. They know that the fight is going to go the distance, and they’ll pummel you with a flurry of punches that will force you to play defense all night. The hope is that when the judges go to the cards, they’re on top.

So far, it’s been working. Small sample size notwithstanding, the Celtics have the 5th-most-efficient offense in the league after three games with a 109.4 offensive rating. Last year, the team finished at 103.9. They’ve been boosted by some early hot shooting. They’re currently first in the league in eFG% at 57.7%. They’re shooting 39.5% from behind the arc, including Avery Bradley’s 31-point outburst on Saturday night when he made 8 three-pointers in Charlotte.

However, what’s really helped them is their ball movement. The Celtics are one of the “passiest” teams in the NBA. They rank fifth behind the Nets, Sixers, Suns, and Bulls in total passes per game (329). Their hot shooting has them second in assists per game (27.7), first in secondary assists (9.3) and fourth in potential assists (49.3). That’s a team that shares the ball. There are a handful of playmakers and ballhanders on the roster, but that doesn’t mean much if their teammates aren’t producing. To this point, however, the Celtics rank 4th in the league in assisted field goals at 66.4%. Guys like Jae Crowder (93.8%), Tyler Zeller (90%), and even Terry Rozier (85.7%) are hitting shots when they’re asked to finish off plays.

There’s work to be done defensively, particularly on the rebounding end, but what’s scary is that they’ve only scratched the surface of what they can be on the offensive side of the ball. They’ll be getting Marcus Smart back tonight, and while he may not be the most effective shooter, he showed major improvement in the preseason with his ability to penetrate the paint and find open shooters and cutters. Boston is 9th in the NBA at generating wide-open shots (6+ feet to the closest defender), and that number should go up with another driving ball handler in the lineup. Smart’s aggression should also help the team get to the free-throw line more. The Celtics are 27th right now in FTAs, but those numbers should rise with Smart returning as the sixth starter. In two more weeks, they’ll likely get Kelly Olynyk back in the fold, too. Olynyk led the team in three-point shooting percentage last season at 40.5%, and he’ll be able to serve as an above-the-break big-man playmaker like Horford does with the starters.