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Role reversal: how the Celtics’ talented roster has succeeded in the dirty work

With a nine-man rotation of could be starters, the Celtics have all had to role player work.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Before the season started, much was made of Boston’s depth of quality on the roster. All nine rotation players could conceivably start and star on other teams. In any given game, any of them can go off for 20-plus points (only Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes have yet to reach that mark this season). A shuffling of the starting lineup has more evenly spread out the talent between the first and second units, but this is still a team that doesn’t necessarily have those blue collared, hard hat wearing unsung heroes that provide a backbone for a championship team.

Instead, Boston has employed an all-hands-on-deck approach to the dirty work. We’ve seen All Stars spot up in the corner in order to space the floor for his teammates. Point guards will sick handles are setting screens for players five years their junior. Everybody is expected to check their ego at the door and get their nose dirty on defense.

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

Rebounds: Boards have always been a feather in the cap of great role players, but the Celtics don’t have a player that averages more than seven rebounds a game. Instead, eight of their nine key rotation players average at least four boards and they’ve quietly been one of the league’s best defensive rebounding teams by committee. Boston ranks sixth in defensive rebounding rate at 74.4% to complement to their league-leading defense.

Over the last six games, their defensive rebounding has helped fuel Boston’s fast break attack. Conventional wisdom would suggest that gang rebounding like that would prevent them from getting out in transition, but the opposite has been true. During that stretch, the Celtics are third in fast break points at 18.8 per game.

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

“Assists”: After the blowout of the Knicks, I referenced the Celtics’ recent uptick in passes per game:

During this four-game winning streak that includes big road wins in New Orleans and Minnesota, the Celtics rank 5th in passes made at 326.3 passes per game, 3rd in assists at 29.0, and 1st in potential assists at 53.3.

But there are hidden “assists” that don’t go under the umbrella of traditional assist counting. For example, the Celtics rank second in secondary assists or “hockey assists” where a player makes a pass to another player that gets credited for the assist. Naturally, the point guards lead this category; Kyrie Irving has a total of 30 with Terry Rozier and Al Horford trailing behind at 14 and 10 respectively.

There’s also screen assists. The Celtics don’t play a lot of minutes with a traditional hulking center like Jusuf Nurkic or Rudy Gobert. Boston’s resident bruiser Aron Baynes only averages 14.5 minutes per game. However, despite their penchant to favor small ball, Boston still utilizes their bigs to get their ball handlers and wings open. They rank 13th in screen assists with Baynes and Horford predominantly delivering the pain. All of Australia ranks third in screen assists per-36 minutes at 7.8.

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

Defense: One of the lynch pins to Boston’s top-3 defense (102.9 DefRtg) is their pressure on the three-point line. With the league collectively drifting farther and farther away from the rim, it’s become imperative to, as much as possible, control the variance of outside shooting. The Celtics rank fourth in the NBA in contested 3’s per game at 26.7 and allow 32.2 3FGA’s. Predictably, Marcus Smart ranks high on the list of contested three pointers with lengthy players like Pascal Siakam, Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Collins, and Thaddeus Young.

The Celtics employ a bend-don’t-break defense that relies on simple basketball fundamentals: keep a body between the player and rim and contest everything. They’re in the middle of the pack when it comes to deflections per game (12.8), but they generate the 7th most turnovers (15.8) and score the 8th most points of TO’s (18.0).