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The Celtics 3-point problem

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The popular sentiment is that the Boston Celtics “live and die” by the three-point shot, but is that true?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics won their most enjoyable game in nearly a month Monday night, dismantling Anthony Davis and the Pelicans in a 124-107 win. There were a lot of encouraging signs for Celtics fans in the win, most notably that the Celtics got a convincing win on the road against what should end up being a playoff team. However, when the dust had cleared, fans were left to ponder one of the biggest flags on the stat line: the Celtics hot night from three.

The Celtics hit nearly 49% of their deep takes. Fans with a longer memory might remember that the Celtics also had a torrid night from three when they had one of their other marquis wins;, a 117-113 win over the previously undefeated Milwaukee Bucks in which the team hit a monstrous 24 three pointers. These facts, along with how mindbogglingly frustrating it is to watch the Celtics miss open shots time and time again, have drawn the fan consensus towards one big, singular conclusion.

“The Celtics hit threes, the Celtics win.”

Is it really as simple as that? Jeff Van Gundy is a fan of saying that the NBA is a make-or-miss league. The cruelty of that mantra has haunted the 2017-2018 Rockets with their own “what if’s” after they hit just 7-of-44 from behind the arc in last year’s Game 7 against the Warriors. The Celtic’s struggles on the offensive end are well documented, and the fact that the Celtics are 3rd in the NBA in open (closest defender 4-6 feet) and 4th in wide open (closest defender 6+ feets) three point shots per NBA.com tracking data indicates the Celtics are playing below their capabilities. Combine this with the fact that the Celtics are shooting exactly the 2018-2019 NBA league average in 3P% (35.0%) and the fact that they finished last year 2nd in three point percentage (with largely the same rotation) behind only the Golden State Warriors, and the conclusion is almost too easy.

“The Celtics hit threes, the Celtics win.”

Right?

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The truth of the matter is that the Boston Celtics have been largely unaffected by their three point shooting this year. The Celtics are currently 6-4 when they shoot above the league average 35% and 5-6 when they shoot below that threshold. Among games the Celtics lost while shooting well were games against the 9-12 Jazz. By the same token, the Celtics got a big win on the road against the currently 12-7 Thunder while shooting 34.4% from deep and dismantled the Sixers on Opening Night with a 29.7% shooting night.

The 2017-2018 Celtics, who as I previously mentioned had largely the same rotation as this year, were 22-15 when they shot at or below the league average mark of the 2017-2018 NBA league average 3P% of 36.2%. Expanded over the duration of a season, that’s almost a 49 win pace for the season. While that’s a touch short of the Celtics actual mark of 55 win pace, it’s still a record that might have you sniffing around first round home court in the Eastern Conference. When you consider that the Celtics were the second best three point shooting team in the league last year, it’s pretty encouraging to know that they would have probably been fine even if they were a downright bad three point shooting team.

So, if I’m sitting here and saying that the three point shooting is not making the “do or die” impact that many Celtics fans fear, what is the true culprit? What if I told you it was the Celtics #2 ranked NBA defense? The Celtics currently have an identical defensive rating to last year’s team (103.1, 2nd in the NBA), so how on Earth could that be making a difference?

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics were 25-2 last year when they held their opponents under 95 points. This year’s (largely the same) incarnation of the team is 4-1 when they do the same, the lone blemish coming in arguably the Celtics worst game of the season when they lost to the Magic by just a single possession in spite of their horrendous play. The 2017-2018 Celtics held opponents under 100 points in exactly half their games. By comparison, the 2018-2019 Celtics clock in at 33%. While the defensive ratings are identical, the Celtics are playing with a pace of 101.9 this year, compared to last year’s 98.2 per ESPN.com.

Pace is up around the league, and that doesn’t do much to help the Celtics, who have an elite half-court defense and strong individual scorers in Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum. Playing faster mutes the Celtics haranguing defense and doesn’t allow the Celtics defense to create steals and make easy offense going the other direction. As an aside, the Celtics had 14 steals against the Pelicans Monday night.

Things like avoiding shots early in the shot clock, rebounding well, drawing free throws to give the team time to get set up on the defensive end, and simply playing better defense will put the Celtics in a position to look more like they did last year, with a more talented team.