Remember back in October when the Celtics had one of the league’s worst offense (100.8 OffRtg)? Open shots weren’t going down, the team (read: Jayson Tatum) took a confounding amount of mid-range jumpers, and the PPG just wasn’t matching up with their talent level. But after a reshuffling on the starting lineup, Boston turned in an impressive December ranked second in offense (115.5 OffRtg) that sparked an eight-game winning streak.
Over the course of the entire season, the Celtics are top-10 in offense, but considering how poorly they perform in key areas of the game, it’s a surprising statistic. For example, Boston is 28th in the NBA in free throw rate (FTA/FGA) at 0.223. That number is on par with cellar dwellers like the Phoenix Suns and the Chicago Bulls.
Despite Boston’s few trips to the charity stripe, Brad Stevens doesn’t seem worried. Yesterday after practice, he said, “I really haven’t focused on it a ton other than that we want to drive the ball and get to the rim more, but we don’t have a ton of guys that get a ton of free throws. We’ve got some.”
The Celtics don’t excel at easy points in the paint either; they’re again 28th in the league in points in the paint at 42.2 and 26th in drives per game and points off drives. By comparison, the Milwaukee Bucks are 4th at 53.7 ppg and and the Denver Nuggets are 6th at 51.6 ppg. It’s not as if Boston doesn’t have the personnel. They’re stocked with arguably the deepest collection of athletic wings in the NBA, but Stevens doesn’t necessarily think that attacking the rim just for the sake of attacking the rim is the best course of action.
“If we just force that issue, we’re either trying to be something we’re not or trying to make haphazard plays at the rim, that’s when you end up getting blocked, you end up missing kick outs, you end up missing layups, and it goes the other way and they score. So we don’t talk a lot about it,” Stevens said.
Luckily for the Celtics, there are many ways to skin a cat. Stevens also said on Sunday, “we just talk about trying to make the next right play. And if we’re a low free throw rate team but we’re still a really good offense, that’s OK. We just have to make up for it in other ways.” The Celtics are still one of the best teams in the league at generating open shots and in December, they started hitting them. A lot of them. They are first in creating open looks (defender 4-6 feet away) and 6th in eFG% at 54% and second in wide open looks (6+ feet away) and 8th in eFG% at 59.2%. For Boston, getting open shots from the perimeter are worth more than contested looks in the restricted area.
Boston is a team that shares the ball with everybody given an opportunity to contribute. The Celtics are 6th in the league in potential assists (47.2) with most of those coming behind the arc; they lead the NBA in catch-and-shoot opportunities at 31.4 per game with 27.6 of them as three-pointers. They’re around the league’s mean in terms of paint touches, but many of those end up as kick outs to the perimeter. Since a dismal October, their 3FG% has been trending up from month-to-month: 32.8%, 37.1%, 36.7%, and 44%. Water is finally reaching its level.
So much of their offensive success hinges on what has been the strength of their roster since even the beginning of the season when they were struggling: depth and versatility. While Kyrie Irving may be Boston’s most talented offensive player, it’s been their multi-faceted attack that has finally started clicking. Six players average more than ten points a game and ten members of the rotation average 12+ based on per-36 numbers. Only the immeasurable Marcus Smart doesn’t qualify. All eight players that average 20+ minutes have had a 20-point game already this season.
However, with Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris on the mend and set to return tonight against the Nets, there is this issue of too much of a good thing. After yesterday’s practice, Morris and Stevens talked about the difficulty of playing everybody now that they’re more or less healthy:
“It’s probably harder when we have everybody, because everybody can’t shoot,” Morris admitted Sunday. “Everybody can’t get the amount of minutes they want. It’s just a different feeling when you’re out there comfortable and you’re playing the amount of minutes you want and taking the shots you want. I mean, that’s for everybody around the league. It’s just a different feeling.”
“When you know your time on the court is unlimited until you wear out it’s an easier way to play,” said Stevens.” And that’s why I think it’s so important for us as coaches and everybody around to understand the guys that are playing less or playing more sporadically, that’s really hard to do to be as effective as you are when you are getting unlimited opportunity.”
A series of team meetings just before Christmas seemed to have quashed some early ego-driven drama, but there’s still some doubt that with everybody back, they can sustain this offensive production. There is a blueprint though. Boston doesn’t have a FT-hunting James Harden or a paint attacker like Giannis Antetokounmpo, so their best bet is to move the ball, “make the right play,” and find a good shot.