Basketball is a pretty simple game. If the ball moves and the players move, the offense usually looks good. If shots go in, so much the better. The Boston Celtics offense has teetered between brilliant and head-banging-against-the-wall frustrating. There have been countless articles written about ball and player movement, and how the ball gets sticky when certain players on the floor. And how some guys settle for bad shots. And perhaps most head-scratching of all: why are the Celtics missing so many open and wide-open shots?
While it hasn’t been the season most expected so far, and the offense has certainly been a big part of that, there are some great signs a breakout is coming. First of all, there are moments where the ball and player movement leads to beautiful basketball. In addition, water always finds its level. The shooting numbers are starting to balance back out, which was expected given the talent on the roster. Finally, it seems like Brad Stevens has found some lineups that work better and the players are slotting into roles. With as much depth as Boston has, this last one was always going to take the most time.
One thing that has been there all year long? Balanced scoring. Even as the offense has scuffled to 19th in the NBA through the first 23 games, the balance has been there. Six Celtics are averaging double-figures in points:
· Kyrie Irving – 22.2 PPG
· Jayson Tatum – 16.3 PPG
· Marcus Morris – 14.0 PPG
· Al Horford – 12.1 PPG
· Gordon Hayward – 11.2 PPG
· Jaylen Brown – 11.1 PPG
These averages come with some notable challenges. Kyrie Irving is Kyrie Irving. Al Horford is Al Horford (last year’s three-point percentage was an outlier to the rest of his career). The rest of the guys? They’ve had some stuff to work through.
Tatum started off the year shooting terribly. Both in terms of percentage and shot selection. Now? He’s at 44.6 percent overall and up to 39.8 percent from behind the arc. Most encouraging? His percentage of long-twos is almost back down to last season’s acceptable level – 19.8 percent this year to 18.8 percent last year. Tatum is just fine.
Hayward has been working his way back. It’s been choppy and uneven until about a week or so ago. All of a sudden, he’s just playing basketball again. It was always going to take time and the Celtics patience is now being rewarded.
As for Morris…Boston would be lost without him. He’s arguably been the team’s most consistent player. Morris has scored in double-digits in 16-of-22 games and his percentages are great. In addition, Morris has made clutch bucket after clutch bucket for the Celtics. The kicker? He’s mostly done it in just 26 minutes per game off the bench, as he’s only been a starter over the last couple of weeks.
What about Brown? There isn’t any nice way to put this: he’s been a mess. He’s shooting under 40 percent overall, 25 percent on three-pointers and his free throw shooting is at a career-low of 62 percent. Most frustrating, given Brown’s athleticism, he’s shooting only 60 percent at the rim, while taking just 33 percent of his shots at the basket. Both of those figures are the worst of his short career. The talent is there, but Brown has been off his game all year long.
Add it all up, and even while hitting a lot of bumps along the road, Boston’s offense has cobbled together some productivity. More importantly, it’s improving as the year goes along. And while the individual production is good, and getting better, what will make Stevens smile is the team production.
Through the first 23 games (just over a quarter of the season), the Celtics have seen 11 players score in double-figures at least once. The only Boston player who has been active for most of the games this season that hasn’t hit double-digits in scoring is Guerschon Yabusele, and he barely plays.
In addition, seven different players have been the game-high scorer this season. Irving has led Boston in scoring 12 times, Tatum five times, Brown twice and Morris, Hayward, Terry Rozier and Aron Baynes once apiece.
Overall, the Celtics average 4.8 players in double-figures in points each game. This ranges from a low of two players (loss versus Utah) to seven players (win over Cleveland). In 17-of-23 games, at least five players have hit 10 or more points. Regularly, Boston also features at least two players off the bench to hit double-digit scoring. This was generally Morris, but Hayward has stepped up since they switched roles. And the second guy is almost always Rozier, who has play through some offensive struggles in his own right.
Stevens has preached patience all season long. The most common refrain from the coach, and a lot of the players, has been “It takes time”. This was used to talk about Hayward specifically, but also the team as a whole. With both Irving and Hayward back in the lineup, everyone has had to adjust. And those adjustments have created some ugliness along the way.
But, it’s starting to turn around. Players are slotting into roles. Stevens knows how, where and when to use each guy to the best of their ability, minus maybe Brown. We’ll see what comes of him. But even while preaching patience, the team hasn’t lost faith in each other. The balance has been there all year long. As everyone figures it out, from coaches to players, that trust in the team concept will stand out even more. And that’s what we’ve all been waiting for.