With four minutes and fifty-two seconds remaining in the first quarter of his team’s Wednesday night game against the Wizards, Isaiah Thomas caught an outlet near mid court and flung the ball towards the opposing hoop. His teammate, Amir Johnson, gleefully received the pass, and hammered it down for an alley-oop, sending the Boston crowd into a frenzy.
It was indicative of the game as a whole, a thorough bounce-back victory for the Celtics, fueled by stellar two-way production from Al Horford, solid contributions from the team’s role players, and superior play in transition. This transition play has become something of a bellwether of success in this series.
In every single game, the team with a positive margin in transition has gone on to win, a reality that has been particularly stark for Washington. In the Wizards’ two victories, they’ve outscored the Celtics on the break by an average of 10.5 points.
Washington’s best player, John Wall, may be the most devastating transition force in the NBA not named LeBron James. “[Wall’s] arguably the fastest guy in the NBA, so when he gets out and [is] getting dunks and layups, and looking for Beal for threes, it’s hard to beat those guys,” Thomas said.
For the playoffs, the Wizards are averaging 111.0 points per 100 possessions on plays that end in transition, but only 107.2 via non-transition trips, per NBA.com. That’s the difference between a top-three offense and one that is barely above league average. The Celtics differential is less severe. They average only two more points per 100 possessions on the break than across plays finished in any other manner. For Boston, scoring in transition is useful; for Washington, it is essential.
The natural question leading out of all this is: What have the Celtics done in their three victories that has allowed them to win the transition battle?
Quality defense, particularly when players are sprinting down the court at full speed, is difficult to quantify. Identifying the antecedents that lead to those moments is a more straightforward task however, and the ultimate solution for keeping the Wizards from exploding on the break appears to be limiting their ability to get the ball in situations that allow them to push the tempo.
The simplest means of doing so is by making shots and limiting turnovers, which Boston has done at a far greater rate in victories. Avery Bradley echoed these sentiments after the Celtics’ solid performance in game five.
“Offense can lead to great defense. If we’re able to get good shots, that means we are able to get back in transition.”
The numbers back that theory as well. The Celtics have hit on 53.2 percent of their shots from the field and turned the ball over a hair above 10 times in wins. In losses, their shooting percentage drops to just 41.5 percent, and turnovers jump to over 17. That’s a huge difference, and a major contributing factor to how effectively Washington can leverage its speed to generate points.
It’s possible this is all tied to home court. “Every team is different at home than they are on the road,” Wall said. “[Teams] play great at home, got your fans there. Role players always play better at home.” That has been decidedly true in this series, but there are likely more factors in play.
The two-game windows in which the series has shifted so violently allow enough time for coaching staffs to make adjustments. The Wizards were more familiar with the Celtics’ offense when they returned home to Washington, and their defense looked transformed.
Brad Stevens threw a series of new offensive wrinkles at Washington in Boston’s most recent victory, relying on Al Horford’s brilliant ability to facilitate chief among them. The Wizards’ defense was flummoxed, and suddenly the turnovers that plagued the Celtics in their prior two games disappeared.
Thomas took note. He sang the praises of Stevens’s changes in game five and appears confident more are on the way.
“Coach made great adjustments, and we took what was off the whiteboard and put it on the court,” Thomas said. “We’ve just got to do that on Friday.”
Scott Brooks will have a strategic response intended to ratchet up his team’s defense and increase their opportunities to get out and run, and Stevens is undoubtedly toying with ideas for counters as we speak. How effectively each man can get their players to translate their visions on the court will likely define the series.