In his weekend column for The Boston Herald, Stephen Bulpett outlined one of the Celtics biggest weakness (particularly without Enes Kanter and Robert Williams against the Knicks): defensive rebounding. New York outscored Boston 20-5 on second chance points on Friday night, but the Celtics escaped with a win on a Jayson Tatum jumper at the end of regulation.
Statistically, the Celtics haven’t exactly dominated in one area. They have a middling offense at 106.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 14th in the NBA. They’re ninth in defensive rating at 101.4. They’re 22nd in effective field goal percentage and shooting a ho-hum 35% from behind the arc.
In the preseason, they put an emphasis on being more aggressive getting to the rim and pressuring the ball on defense and on both fronts, they’re showing definitive signs of improvement. They’re fifth in drives per game (53) and their trips to the free throw line are up from 19.5 per game to 25.8, in large part due to Kemba Walker’s 8.2. On the other side of the ball, they’re forcing 18.4 turnovers a night (8th in the NBA) and scoring 21.2 points of TO’s (5th in the NBA). By comparison, they’re best in the league taking care of the ball and giving up points off turnovers.
To open the season, Boston handled the conference’s best teams and beat the Knicks twice. On Tuesday, the Celtics start a three-game road trip in Cleveland, Charlotte, and San Antonio and then return home for two games versus the visiting Mavericks and Wizards. A 4-1 record would be ideal. Losing two is acceptable.
It starts to get interesting when the team heads west in mid-November. They’ll face three teams currently in the playoff picture--Phoenix, LAC, and Denver--and come back to the Garden for a home-and-home with Kyrie Irving and the Nets. ESPN ranked the Celtics 5th in their Power Rankings this morning and we’ll find out soon enough if that number is real.
The Celtics have so far subsisted as a low assist total team. Their 21.8 APG puts them in the lower third of the league. It’s not alarming, but for a team going into the year aiming to be greater than the sum of their parts, the math isn’t adding up. In training camp, Brad Stevens stressed the importance of ball and player movement on offense. Boston has a lot of good players, but nobody on the level of greatness who can command consistent defensive attention and double teams.
So far, the ball movement has underwhelmed. Through five games, they’re averaging just 280.4 passes per game. While there hasn’t been much of a drop off in potential assists (47.6 vs. 43.2), there should be some concern that the team should be moving the ball more, particularly in the second unit. Because of the versatility and athleticism with the starters, they can usually generate a favorable match up to exploit. That luxury doesn’t exist on the bench and they’re averaging just 24.1 points. More mixing-and-matching should help when the Celtics finally get healthy.
For the most part, Boston has done a good job using their depth. Eleven players are averaging double-digit minutes. Brad Wanamaker, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye have taken on more responsibility as vets. Rookies Carsen Edwards and Grant Williams have shown glimpses that they can handle the pro game. However, the starters have been doing the bulk of heavy lifting.
Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward are all averaging around 35 minutes a game. Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown clock in for around 30. It’s not as if they can’t handle the workload, but compared to last year’s regular season workload for the rotation players, it’s noticeably more. Only Tatum and Kyrie Irving inched over the 30 minutes per game mark in 2018-2019. This year’s squad isn’t arguably as talented and per the NBA, is the most inexperienced, but as the season moves along, look for Stevens to slow this sprint pace to marathon.