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Is the Celtics offense broken?

Good game plans but poor results come from a team that needs to play smarter.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Brad Stevens has long preached process over results. The idea behind it is simple; there is inherently a bit of luck and random result in an NBA game, specifically the NBA shot attempt. A player could take an identical shot under the exact same conditions and miss four while hitting six. While a team can’t control what the result of a shot is, they can control the circumstances around it. Making shots difficult, while taking easy ones yourself, puts you in the best position to win, at least that’s what Steven’s coaching staff preaches.

So, when conducting the autopsy of the Celtics’ rock fight with the Orlando Magic on Monday night, I thought about the arguments that flared up on Twitter following the ghastly home loss. Was this a Celtics team that was running a good offense, but simply snake bitten by fickle tendencies of luck? Or was this rim-bludgeoning game instead an indictment of a catatonic Celtics offense that many expected to be very good?

I decided to start with the Celtics’ most high profile player, and the one that is most often indicative of the Celtics offense: Kyrie Irving. The start of the season has not been kind to Uncle Drew, as he currently wears the scarlet letter of the Celtics rotation’s worst Net Rating, at an abysmal -10.3. He also boasts the second-worst EFG% and TS% at 42% and 45% respectively, better than only Jaylen Brown.

Irving’s numbers haven’t been great, but he found a bit of a spark against the Magic on Monday scoring a season-high 22 points. It isn’t surprising that Irving had one of his best games this year, when you consider the Magic’s point guard corps of DJ Augustin and Jerian Grant inherited the yeoman’s share of guarding Irving. Consider that perennial defensive liability Nikola Vucevic was acting as the paint general for the majority of Irving’s minutes, and it had all the makings of an Irving breakout game.

The Celtics came in with a clear plan for their starters: use the spacing ability of Horford in tandem with Irving’s creation to put Vucevic in situations where he’d have to be mobile. That’s a general plan that most would agree makes sense. However there is a difference between “wanting to make Nikola Vucevic come out of the paint” and “what you do when you’ve accomplished that”. I want to take a look at what kind of a difference that can make.

On this play, Irving gets Nikola Vucevic in an isolation with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. After a bout of dribbling, Irving pulls the trigger on a 14’ shot over the top of a 7 footer. That’s not a good shot, but perhaps one can talk themselves into the the idea that it is a good shot when Irving is the one taking it. It’s the type of heat check shot that can crush an opponent’s spirits and galvanize teammates into a momentum swing.

That said, it’s a bad shot that Irving missed, continuing his early season slump. It’s a fine shot if the clock is winding down, but Irving still had half the shot clock to get past one of the slower bigs in the NBA and make some help come from somewhere. That’s just not good offense.

Now, let’s compare this against another, much more basic play that also starts with a clear out for Irving on the side.

Here, Irving also finds himself isolated with a defender, and he quickly goes to work. He moves as though he is going to post the (generously) 6’0” Augustin. This quickly draws the attention of Vucevic, who Augustin is funneling Irving towards to keep him from the center of the paint. Irving makes a quick decision finding a wide open Horford. Vucevic is tentative with his close to Horford, which draws the attention of Augustin, who briefly loses track of Irving. Kyrie flashes to the corner, and Al finds him for one of the best shots the Celtics offense can generate.

That is to say, relatively uncontested corner 3 pointer by someone who shoots 41% for their career from that spot. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t go in. Both plays result in zero points and another miss from Irving, but there is a clear difference between the two of them. Give Kyrie these same shots 10 times over, and the later play will almost certainly result in more points for the Celtics, at least hypothetically.

The Celtics offense didn’t work the way it should have Monday night and no matter what that’s a bad thing. I saw the Celtics work in a game plan that I thought made sense and I also saw some inconsistencies with how they executed things. While it’s probably not the most surprising analysis, I thought the Celtics largely schemed the Magic correctly, but simply didn’t execute well, both with sloppy play and decision making.

Horford finished 1-7 from beyond the arc, but a large majority of those shots were good looks.

If Al shoots his career average, the Celtics win this game with room to spare. That said, he didn’t and they lost. There’s an argument to be made that arguing “buts” and “ifs” is the sputtering of a sore loser. After all, that’s certainly how I see it when my team pulls out a close one. That said, I’m not ready to scrap the game plan that got the Celtics 48 “open or wide open” shots (closest defender 4+ feet away) as per NBA.com tracking data.

As a matter of fact the Celtics are currently leading the league in both open and wide open shots. The gulf is particularly wide in the case of the “wide open” shots (6+ feet) where the Celtics have 103 and the second place Orlando Magic have 88. The shots are there, but the Celtics just aren’t finishing and executing.

It’s early in the season and I have a lot of confidence that Brad Stevens will get his guys executing again. However, it’s also important that the Celtics understand that in their current condition, they can’t afford to be sloppy and still expect to win games. With Irving getting his legs under him, Brown struggling around the rim, and Hayward still visibly at less than 100%, the Celtics don’t have the talent padding that they might have expected coming into the year. It’s time to wake up.

Perhaps that ability to loaf their way to easy wins while turning the ball over and missing their open shots will come later in the year, but for now, the Celtics are still a team that needs to execute sharply if they want to win games. Especially if they intend to open a second or third round series in the Garden.