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Celtics’ offense on the rise

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It took a trip out west for the Celtics to find their offensive rhythm.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

During a seven game stretch starting from after the Christmas loss to the Wizards to a blowout loss to Orlando before the latest west coast trip, the Celtics went 7-3 with the unique distinction of having the best DefRtg in the league of 95.0, but the worst OffRtg of 99.2. But over a back-to-back set in LA, a Kyrie-Steph slugfest in NoCal, and a nailbiter in Denver, the team leveled out with a 2-2 split.

The defense slipped, but that was expected going up against some of the league’s best offenses. The Warriors, Nuggets, and Clippers, are 1st, 10th, and 11th respectively in OffRtg. However, what’s encouraging was Boston’s offense finally getting out of its funk. In those four games, the Celtics averaged a 108.7 OffRtg; it’s a small sample size, but that’s top-10 if sustainable.

Part of the resurgence was shot selection. Over 60% of Boston’s shots came from behind the arc or in the restricted area. That’s analytics heaven. The Celtics aren’t on the level of the Rockets, but they are mid-range averse. The Celtics have averaged just under 32 3FGA’s per game. Out west, they totaled 44, 40, 28, and 36 and shot a smoking 40.5% from behind the arc (the Warriors lead the league for the year at 39.3%). They took the shots they wanted and made a bunch of them.

A lot of it was hitting more open shots. During that 10-game dry spell, the Celtics were generating 18.4 wide open threes, but only hitting 34.9% of them. In the Pacific and Mountain time zones, they made 34-of-78 wide open threes (43.6%). It seems insignificant, but that’s a 6-point swing and a game winner:

Three point shooting stats aside, the eye test will tell you that the Celtics were just playing with more intensity on offense. Several astute fans have pointed out that the Celtics haven’t been passing as much this season as they did last year. The Celtics are averaging three fewer assists this season than last, but the truth is, with this roster, it takes less to churn butter. With the size and speed that Boston has now 1 through 10, they don’t have to generate as much motion and misdirection to crack open a defense. They do, however, have to take advantage of situations when they present themselves. After having a mini-breakout in Denver, Jayson Tatum said:

Tatum is the manifestation of a more focused, team-wide aggressiveness. He followed two dud games against the Lakers and Warriors with a full steam effort vs. the Clippers and Nuggets. In October and November, we were wowed by his shooting. In December, he started getting nasty with his dunks. In January, he downloaded ball handling from The Matrix. His accelerated development and maybe importantly, growing confidence, has made him more of a focal point on offense.

Stevens’ read-and-react system is similar to the read option in football; if you see a hole, hit it, but if there’s nothing there, pitch it to your teammate. Tatum has started to call his own number more often and that’s helped him break through the rookie wall. One of the basic tenants of defense is to stay between your man and the basket, but if Tatum gets the slightest advantage of getting his defender on his hip or moving the wrong way, he’s been attacking off the dribble. Earlier in the season, he was mainly attacking close outs after a kick out from Horford or Irving. Since the new year, he’s started to turn the corner coming off screens and pin downs and has even started to work in isolation.

Tatum isn’t the only player that went through a little renaissance on the road trip. You can see confidence growing in guys like Daniel Theis (6-for-11 from distance, 11 assists on the road trip) and more importantly, sixth man Marcus Morris. As many have pointed out on CelticsBlog, Morris is trying to find his way in the offense after playing thirty games in green. That’s resulted in a frustratingly high number of 15-footers, but he has found some success playing bully ball against smaller defenders.

It’s not the most beautiful basketball, but if Morris can switch onto a point guard in a 1-4 PnR or draw a favorable matchup in transition, he’s been punishing them on the block. Again, that’s been the through line for Boston’s recent uptick in offense: identify pressure points in the defense and attack. Attack hard.

In their return to TD Garden Wednesday night, we saw another concerted effort to play with pace and purpose. With Kyrie Irving on the shelf nursing a thigh bruise, Terry Rozier got the nod to run with the first unit and notched only the 2nd triple double in a player’s first start in NBA history. Like Tatum and Morris’ scoring outbursts out west, Rozier’s production was fueled by aggressive play and quick decisions.

In a Celtics.com’s TD Bank Film Study, assistant coach Scott Morrison pointed out how important paint touches are. It makes the defense decide what to take away: a drive at the rim or an open perimeter shot. Against New York, Rozier consistently forced the Knicks to consult their decision tree and capitalized on their hesitation. So far, we’ve highlighted scoring, but it was Rozier’s ten assists that illustrates how far he and the team has come since that January slump.

Like Morrison says, the ball doesn’t have to always hit the paint to be a paint touch. As long as there’s a threat (i.e. a roll man, a cutter, etc.), the defense is forced to sink to protect the rim. Watch Rozier operate in the pick-and-roll. He’s patient. He lets the defense react to the action, occasionally motions into the paint to sink the defense in more, and delivers the pass right when the Knicks are the most vulnerable.

After the Denver win, Horford reiterated Stevens’ mantra of always getting better and how this young gun team gained confidence from the Warriors game:

“I think it’s huge for our younger guys’ confidence and understanding that, if we play the right way and stick to our game plan, we can play with anybody and put ourselves in that position. And we proved against Golden State, not being 100 percent, obviously missing some guys, that we were right there and a play or two from winning that game. So I’m very encouraged from what I saw from our group going against them.”

Seeing where they are and could be may even make the Celtics work harder in the more supported belief that they have a chance to go very deep in the playoffs.

“I think it makes you realize that you have to be able to play at a certain level every night,” said Horford. “And if you can do it against Golden State, the goal is to be able to do it every night consistently. And that’s hard to do. It’s a long season. But we need to keep building on those habits, and if we do that, I feel like we have a chance to be special.

“We’re not there yet, but I feel like we’re starting to figure it out as a group.”

The next two weeks are a roller coaster for the Celtics. Marcus Smart’s return date and potential punishment are still unknown. The trade deadline is a week away and Ainge has intimated that there is a move coming. Before the All Star break, Boston has games against the other top seeds in the East: Toronto, Cleveland, and Washington. But even amidst all this change and challenge, it’s important for this team to stay consistent, particularly on the offensive end.