We’re roughly halfway through the schedule and it has largely been a tale of two seasons. As Sean Grande pointed out, the Celtics were 27th in the league in offense for the first 20 games. They’ve been 1st in the league for the last 20 games.
So what has changed? For one thing the open looks that they were missing early in the year are falling now. Confidence helps a shooter shoot and some of that confidence comes from trusting each other (via The Athletic):
“You just don’t see the body language as we once did in the beginning of the season of guys not getting shots or guys missing shots,” Irving said. “Miss or make, we’re setting up our defense. We’re just starting to become that team where we really trust one another game to game.”
While Kyrie and the team are reluctant to put too much weight on the team meeting in late December, it seems an Airing of Grievances was both necessary and helpful (via ESPN):
“At that point, playing against Milwaukee, we weren’t at rock bottom, but we needed to address some s--- in this locker room. It’s just good to get stuff out in the air. As grown men and guys that have expectations for themselves, it was good to hear guys talk about what they wanted for themselves and what they wanted for this team.”
It was exceptionally hard to pinpoint the team’s identity prior to that meeting. Or rather, it was unsettling to admit to what that identity was (inconsistent and frustrating). Now that the team is gelling and producing, it is becoming apparent that the team’s identity is centered around ball movement, team defense, and a deep and talented roster.
For the 5th straight game, the Celtics recorded 30 or more assists. That shouldn’t be too surprising since they’ve been near or at the top of the league in generating open and wide-open looks. Brad Stevens encourages ball movement and looking for the “right” shot. The roster is full of players that have great court vision and passing instincts (Irving, Smart, Hayward, Horford, etc.).
Anecdotally I’ve noticed what seems to be an uptick in players passing up good looks to create great looks. That’s one clear sign of the team trusting each other. Nobody feels like they must be the one to lead the way with scoring. Not even Kyrie.
“When I don’t have to go out there and score 30 it’s cool with me,” he said. “I probably won’t have to score 30 until we play one of the best teams in the league — or, if any — until the playoffs. So I’m happy about that.”
It certainly helps when Gordon Hayward has looked better as of late. Bringing him off the bench has provided the 2nd unit with needed playmaking.
The Celtics are an elite defensive team. Even after the first 20 games they were ranked 3rd in defensive rating. Yet there were times when it seemed like their defense took naps at inopportune times and against players you simply can’t sleep on (Jamal Murray, Kemba Walker, Devin Booker). More recently, the Celtics have struggled to slow down talented bigs (Joel Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl Anthony-Towns) in part because the team has been without Aron Baynes.
Still, on a night in, night out basis, the Celtics generally play defense as well as anyone in the league. Marcus Smart is the leader and catalyst on that end and deserves all the credit and praise that he gets. More quietly, Al Horford is the anchor in the paint. He was slowed by his “creeky” knee earlier in the year but the rest and minutes restriction he’s been placed on seems to be restoring his lateral movement and overall effectiveness.
Kyrie Irving has gotten into the act as well. He’s never going to be considered a lock-down guy, but he’s come a long way in terms of effort and technique. Part of that comes with studying game film of Marcus Smart (he’s now sliding over to take charges and attacking passing lanes for steals) but most of it is simply stepping up his focus and intensity. When you’ve got your lead guy making that kind of effort, it is easy to convince the rest of the team to follow suit.
Look closely at any 2nd half comeback or momentum changing swing and you’ll notice that it usually has a lot more to do with defensive stops than shooters finding their rhythm. This team feeds off that energy and translates it into more stops and so forth.
Depth and Talent
We’ve known since last year’s playoffs that this team was going to be deep and talented. Fitting it all together has been a bigger challenge than most of us anticipated, but it seems like Stevens is well on his way to figuring it all out.
When someone needs to sit for injuries or rest, there’s always someone willing and able to step into a bigger role. The tricky part is finding enough touches and shots when everyone is healthy and available.
Again, it comes back to trust. Players making the extra pass because they trust their teammates to do the same for them. As coaches like to say, the ball finds good energy.
The latest example was against the Pacers on Wednesday night. Jayson Tatum had it cooking early on, but it didn’t seem to be forced or outside the rhythm of the offense. In the 2nd quarter, it was Jaylen Brown’s turn to get hot. The third quarter was Marcus Morris’ time to shine. It doesn’t always work to be quite so “my turn, your turn” like that, but it doesn’t seem like players are quite as concerned about where their next shot is going to come.
That’s going to be particularly important in the playoffs where opponents will be game planning to take away the Celtics best options. We’ll need each of these guys at some point and the regular season is where you figure out how it all works together.
There will be more struggles, setbacks, and frustrations in the second half the year. There are still talented teams ahead of them in the standings. No one is suggesting that any of this will be easy from here on out.
It just seems to be a little less daunting when the team has an identity that they can fall back on.