On Saturday afternoon, Boston showed the league why they're part of the Eastern Conference elite. Good teams have a way of imposing their style onto their opponent and forcing them to adjust their game. With the Heat in town and the #3 seed up for grabs, the Celtics dictated pace and shot selection on an older, bigger Miami team.
Boston turned 18 Heat turnovers and 12 offensive rebounds into 96 total FGAs, and they played at a blistering pace of 103.90. Miami is one of the slowest teams in the NBA whereas the Celtics play at breakneck speed, good for third in the league in pace. The formula has been simple: pressure the opposing team's best perimeter players, make them cough up the ball, and sprint for an easy bucket on the other end. Since going small, they're first in the NBA in points off turnovers and fifth in fast break points.
Defense is always the first crashing wave when a team faces the Celtics because of Boston's perimeter D. Generally, it's been Jae Crowder drawing the tough assignments of checking the opposing team's best 3 or 4, but with the Heat in town, it was Avery Bradley that drew Dwyane Wade. Wade was coming off a 32 point, 7 assist night against Golden State and two days rest, but Avery's played him tough his entire career. Never forget:
Wade finished with 19 points off an inefficient 7-for-19 from the field with 4 turnovers for a -13 plus/minus. Avery Bradley was just the tip of the sword. The Celtics' defense has slipped of late, so it was nice to see the team locked in collectively. They finished with an 86.3 defensive rating, the first time that the team has finished with a DRtg less than 90 in over a month. They've been one of the league's best teams defending the three pointer, but they've been lit up recently. It's just one game, but Miami shot a combined 1-for-13 behind the arc.
Defensively, they were locked in, but offensively, things weren't at rosy. Although the team shot 40.6% from the field, eight players finished with 8-15 points each. It was one of those games were nobody really shined, but everybody contributed. Just as their defense has become their calling card, so has their balanced attack on offense.
Against Miami, the Boston starting five played 16 minutes together with the four bench players--Marcus Smart, Evan Turner, Jonas Jerebko, and Tyler Zeller--teaming up with Avery Bradley for 12 minutes, Jae Crowder for 5, and Isaiah Thomas for 1. Even with the injured Kelly Olynyk in the mix, that's generally been the rotation: 15-20 minutes for the starters to play together, 15-20 minutes for the bench, and then a smattering of whoever is having a good game to round out the full 48.
For a team whose strength is versatility and a deep bench, they don't mix and match as much as you'd expect. Credit Brad Stevens on figuring out what combinations worked. Let's not forget that at the start of the season, Tyler Zeller and David Lee were starters, and it wasn't until January 12th that Boston committed to playing more small-ball lineups. After two-and-a-half years of rebuilding, the team is finally reaping the benefits of consistency and we're seeing what pairs and trios work well together.
Since January 12th, the Celtics are second in the league in assists with 26.7 APG behind only the Warriors, with Thomas spearheading the starters with 6.6 APG and Evan Turner feeding the second unit with 5.3 APG. One of the most potent duos has been Turner and Zeller. ET tallied 9 assists to lead the team vs. the Heat with over half of them going to TZ. In fact, all of Zeller's made FG's were off passes from Turner whether they were in pick-and-pops to draw Hassan Whiteside out of the paint or in transition.
In addition to their passing prowess, Thomas and Turner can both score, but they do it in distinctly different ways. Despite his size, Thomas lives in the extremes of either taking it to the rack or shooting from beyond the arc. He's averaging more 3FGAs and FTAs in Boston than he did in either of his stops in Sacramento or Phoenix. Turner, on the other hand, is the master of the mid-range. Here are Thomas' and Turner's shot plots for this season courtesy of NBA.com/stats:
They look like photo negatives of each other, and having both players at his disposal gives Stevens the ability to exploit certain mismatches. If a team is smaller, the Celtics can space them out and give Thomas room to work. If a team is bigger and chooses to pack in the paint, Boston can attack from the mid-range.
Whiteside is one of the best rim protectors in the league, and he effectively neutralized Thomas' around the rim. His eight blocks were impressive, but that doesn't count his influence in dissuading and preventing Thomas from driving. However, that didn't stop Turner from attacking him on defense. Just like pairing Turner with Zeller's mid-range shooting, Turner's ability to hit the 15-footer eliminated one of the Heat's strengths. Turner was 5-for-8 around the key and finished with 14 points.
If you're playing FanDuel, I'd almost suggest not picking up any Celtics. There have been some consistent performers over the last few games like Jared Sullinger, Jae Crowder, and of course, Isaiah Thomas, but outside of that, it's a crapshoot. That's what's making the Celtics so dangerous down the stretch. 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!