To the casual viewer, sports can be oversimplified. Get into their end zone. Don’t let them get into yours. Hit the ball. Don’t let them hit the ball. Get the ball in their basket. Don’t let them get it into yours. However, there are infinite intricacies that make each sport (and basketball in particular) a complex dance.
For the Celtics, it all starts on defense, and over the last six games, the team has ramped up its effort on that side of the ball. In their first seven games, the Celtics had a league-worst 112.3 DefRtg, but over the last ten days they’ve defended at a 97.0 DefRtg rate. It’s a small sample size against teams that are a combined 34-46 (as of November 20th), but now that the team is whole, we should see a more consistent effort with players defending their natural positions.
With Crowder out, wing players especially have had to play out of position. Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley had to cover opposing teams’ bigger small forwards, and in isolation, their best defense was to try and stay in front of them and just contest the shot (see AB vs. Kevin Durant last Friday). And with Horford gone, guards were less reluctant to put ball pressure on point guards in fear that if they turned the corner, there wouldn’t be a rim protector as a fail safe behind them. One of the hallmarks of Boston’s suffocating defense is being able to play up on ball handlers, disrupt their rhythm, and get into passing lanes. That element has been missing with two key defenders on the shelf.
Also with Horford and Crowder returning to the lineup, their presence in the front court should help with the Celtics’ rebounding woes. Before Avery Bradley became the leading defensive rebounder in their absence, Horford and Crowder were the team’s best on the defensive glass, grabbing 11 defensive rebounds between them (5 and 6, respectively). To put that into some perspective, Amir Johnson, Boston’s starting center, averages only 2.5 rpg, and in the two weeks during which Boston was without Al and Jae, three of the top five defensive rebounders on the team were guards: Bradley, Smart, and Terry Rozier. The Celtics are the shortest team in the league, and without two of its bigger players, had to rely (not so well) on gang rebounding.
The guards’ tendency to hang back has hurt Boston’s potent transition game. Last season, Boston was second in opponents turnovers (16.4), third in points off turnovers (18.8), and sixth in fast break points (16.3). Through thirteen games, they’re underperforming at 13.6/14.8/11.0. A players-only meeting seems to have helped ramp up the defensive identity, and with the team finally at full strength, we should see an uptick in those margins.
With the speed and quickness this roster has on the wings, the Cs should be able to get out on the break on both made and missed buckets. A couple of easy buckets in transition doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Celtics haven’t really had a chance to “fly around” like they wanted to at the start of the season. Maybe that only accounts for a few points on the scoreboard, but it will help in the long run of re-establishing this team’s identity as an up-tempo pack of gazelles out to eat your lunch.
But even without its full-court approach in full effect, Boston has been very good offensively in the half court, particularly in shooting the ball. Despite their rash of injuries, they still boast a top-10 offense with a 106.0 OffRtg. Last season, Boston was one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league, but so far this year, they’ve been one of the best despite subpar starts from last year’s sharpshooters, Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko. Six rotation players are shooting over the Mendoza line of 35% from behind the arc.
In addition to a lack of perimeter shooting, the narrative for this team has been its lack of star scoring power, but collectively, they’ve been the rising tide for each other. With the addition of Al Horford and the emergence of Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley as playmakers, the Celtics now boast four players including Isaiah Thomas averaging 3+ assists a night. They’re fourth in the NBA in assist percentage at 63.1% and 10th in eFG% at 50.8%.
Thomas is still the engine on offense with a usage rate of 32.7%. Per nbawowy.com, with IT as the focal point of the offense, the Celtics average 1.104 points per possession. Without him, that figure drops to 1.028. Terry Rozier has picked up much of that slack. His numbers don’t jump off the page: 6.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 19.5 minutes. However, he’s played the most time of any Celtic without IT4 on the floor and has fared pretty well. In his 293 minutes sans Isaiah, the team is averaging a robust 1.21 points with Rozier manning the offense. Additionally, Rozier has been shooting an efficient 55.9 eFG%.
Brad Stevens told the Herald’s Steve Bulpett, “I spent more time thinking about that (the team as a whole) than thinking about what we’d do without them, I can tell you that. But you adjust. The playbook’s bigger, for sure, when you’ve got those guys available.” This roster’s strength was always its depth and versatility, and now the Celtics will have all their options at their disposal. There are many ways to skin a cat in the NBA, and now that they’re at full strength, we’ll see what the Celtics Way is all about.