Yesterday, Danny Ainge made his weekly visit with 98.5 The Sports Hub's Toucher & Rich. Despite the possibility that they could be hosting a first-round series in the playoffs, he tempered any expectations that these Celtics could be raising a banner this year:
"There's a big difference between regular season basketball and playoff basketball," Ainge said. "I get worried that we can be taken out of our game too easily. Even last night against a depleted team, I feel like we're taken out of our game too often."
That's not the vote of confidence you want from your GM heading into the playoffs, but it's real talk. Of all the teams that have clinched a playoff berth or are vying for the postseason (anybody with at least 38 wins), the Celtics have the 8th-highest net rating at 3.1, averaging offensive and defensive efficiencies of 103.8 and 100.7, respectively. While that rating is better that those of more than half the teams in the NBA, it is better by a razor-thin margin. As the Celtics head into the playoffs, there are certain areas in which they have to succeed if they have any chance of advancing further than the first round.
Make shots and get easy buckets
Simple, right? That's basketball. The Celtics' offense has been improving all year with offensive efficiency numbers rising from 99.1 in October to 100.7 to 102.1 to 106.0 to 106.9 and then dipping to 104.4 in March and April, but the hard truth is that this is not a team that shoots well. They're 4th-to-last in true shooting percentage. That's due in large part to their inability to hit threes (last at 33.1%) and their middle-of-the-road free throw attempts per game (7th at 23.4 FTAs).
We saw Boston's bad shooting rear its ugly head Wednesday night against an injury-riddled Pelicans team that had no business being in a game at TD Garden. The team made only 10 of 34 threes and shot 41.4% from the field, but they made up for it by getting to the line 27 times (12 by Isaiah Thomas) and scoring 16 points in transition (their average which is good for 6th). Here's more shade from Ainge:
"We go through these offensive droughts," Ainge added. "We haven't made enough shots consistently. We rely on grit and hustle and defense and I just think that we need guys to make more shots."
In the postseason, the team will lean on IT4's scoring, but remember last year when the Cavaliers took away Thomas and made the rest of the team beat them? That'll be every night in April from here on out. They'll need aggressive play from Evan Turner and Marcus Smart as primary ballhandlers and Jae Crowder and Jared Sullinger as rim finishers to combine to be that other superstar on the floor.
Defense wins playoff games
Playoff basketball tends to be more physical, and this plays right into Boston's strengths. Whether it's Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade, Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum, or Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, it'll be the Celtics' perimeter defense that will have to step up, especially if things don't go right on offense.
They've masked some of their offensive shortcomings by cutting down on their turnovers, but more importantly, they're turning teams over on the defensive end at a high rate. That's the grit and hustle that Ainge is talking about. They're second in opposition turnovers with 16.4 per game and fourth in points off turnovers with 18.6. Run-outs and layups have helped get them 45.6 points in the paint (third in the league). All that has helped their pace, too. Only the Warriors average more possessions per game. Playoff basketball tends to be slower and more deliberate but Boston will want to speed things up in order to wear teams down.
Traditionally, the conventional wisdom is to shorten your rotation in the playoffs, but Brad Stevens is hardly a conventional coach. The Celtics were 4-4 in Crowder's absence, and while they suffered a handful of blowouts due in some part to their inability to replicate Crowder's presence on the floor, it did allow Stevens to throw some new guys into the mix.
He won't get regular minutes, but if the team needs a spark plug, Stevens could use Terry Rozier. The rookie's numbers don't exactly catch your eye in the box score, but he has the ability--much like Marcus Smart--to change the complexion of the game. Whether it's a strong rebound, a coast-to-coast drive, or an aggressive stretch of defense, Rozier could serve as a reminder of what Celtics basketball is all about.
The players on the floor will have to keep active, too. Bobby wrote a nice piece about Amir Johnson's emergence over the last few months and stressed his importance to Boston's postseason success. After the Celtics decided to play more small-ball on February 2nd, Johnson started slumping in part to his plantar fasciitis and also the team's change in style. But he's come on since mid-March, and they'll need the big man to continue to be active on both ends. Per Basketball Reference, when Amir scores a Game Score (a measure of how productive a player is created by John Hollinger) higher than 11, the team is 15-5. Five of those games have come in the last three weeks as Johnson has appeared quicker, bouncier, and healthier.