Jayson Tatum carried the scoring weight on the wing against the 76ers, shooting 6-for-12, and splitting a pair of tries from three. At only 21, he’s been hampered by the uncertainty of where his points will come from every night. This month, he’s shooting 20.7 percent from three, forcing him to go inside the arc as he did on Wednesday for 13 points. He’s made it work, scoring two more points per game than last year, though may not feed the heightened expectations that his rookie year laid ahead of him.
Earlier in the season, Paul Pierce, who some have compared Tatum to, made an observation on the C’s young stud. “He’s already good,” Pierce said, “and could be great if he got to the free throw line.” It’s something that Tatum identified in himself, and a problem that the entire team shares. Only the Orlando Magic attempt less free throws per game (19.1) than the Boston Celtics (19.4). Philadelphia hit 39-of-42 from the line in the Celtics’ latest loss, while the C’s only took 16.
Tatum attempts three of Boston’s 19 per game. Kyrie Irving leads the team with 3.7. Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris average over two, while the rest of the roster heads to the line roughly once every game. Brad Stevens, describing the drought in January, saying Boston doesn’t have the personnel to do it.
“I really haven’t focused on it a ton other than we wanted to drive the ball and get to the rim more,” he said. “We don’t have a ton of guys that get a ton of free throws. We got some, but if we just force that issue to try and be something we’re not or try and 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. We don’t talk a lot about it, we talk about trying to make the next right play. 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 it up in other ways.”
Brian Robb wrote about the issue then, and it spurred no change. Since January 6th, the Celts averaged roughly the same amount of free throws per game, ranking last in the NBA. They are eighth in offensive rating, scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions in that time, overcoming it as Stevens said with 47.5 percent shooting from the field — seventh in the league.
Stevens has a point. The Clippers average nine more free throws per game than Boston and it’s amounted to only one more win over that stretch. Same with Philadelphia, ranking second. The surging Spurs and Nuggets shoot nearly as a few as Boston, and the sinking Suns went 8-25 sitting near the top of the list. Winning and free throw attempts haven’t correlated strongly in recent months.
The Celtics take advantage of the free throws they do earn, shooting 81.6 percent from the line over their past 35 games. It’d be a lost point if they couldn’t hit them.
But games like Wednesday’s at Philadelphia are difficult to ignore on the micro level though. The differential between the two teams became so massive that it played a critical role in the outcome. Boston only needed to close the gap to less than half of Philadelphia’s attempts, while hitting every four out of five as they did, in order to win the game. In another recent example, Boston hit nine extra free throws than the Hawks to win by nine.
The foul call is outside of the Celtics’ hands unlike putting the ball in the bucket. Stevens has worked around the deficiency well where he can, but while conventional wisdom holds that the free throw becomes less valuable in the playoffs, per game averages went up last season. The free throw attempts per game leader in 2017-18 shot 27 (Hornets) in the regular season, compared to 28 (76ers) in the postseason. The Celtics increased their attempts from 20.7 to 23.5. There’s no discernible evidence that the free throw became any less prevalent last postseason. However, when the Celtics have lost individual games based in part on massive free throw differentials, it is a concern that one playoff game could swing a series without the most efficient shot in basketball at their disposal.
The three-point shot becomes the next best bet. It’s also on the opposite end as the highest-variance shot in the sport. This year the Celtics shoot 39 percent in wins compared to 32.3 percent in losses. That shot becomes magnified with the missing efficiency of the free throw, especially when Boston doesn’t score inside at a high rate (23rd in points in the paint).
Danny Ainge mentioned the three-point variance and its role in Boston’s streakiness in a recent interview. While Stevens is right that Boston may not have the personnel to be great at getting to the line, and the team has incredibly gotten by through the toughest shots, they could be even better by becoming anything better than last place.
That falls on Hayward to some degree. A career 4.3 free throws per game attempt player, he’s averaging 2.3 this season. Al Horford is about one free throw per game below his career standard. Irving’s 0.7 below his career mark. Brown, Tatum and Morris are in line with where they’ve been.
Boston hasn’t placed an emphasis on this as an issue, and perhaps they don’t need to. The improvement needed to make a mark on the offense isn’t substantial. If every player does a tiny part, it’ll do a long way toward making the offense as good as any in the sport.