In just their second and third games of the season without star guard Kemba Walker, the Boston Celtics managed to start a busy January with back-to-back wins, albeit against two of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference in the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls. While Kemba’s absence was badly felt in the half court, the Celtics did a great job of adjusting and pushing the tempo in transition to get the victories.
With Walker out, Brad Stevens opted to open with a long, defensively active lineup of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Daniel Theis. The C’s can easily switch 1-4 with this five, and, as he showed with his game-winning block on Trae Young in the Atlanta game, Theis is no liability on the perimeter either.
In both games, the Celtics fell behind early, and relied on their defense and transition play to kickstart runs that were crucial in the victories. Against the Hawks, the offense struggled early on and they trailed big before a banked Marcus Smart three cut the lead down to 15 with under 30 seconds to go in the first quarter. On the ensuing possession, Jaylen Brown intercepted a lazy Brandon Goodwin pass and added two with an emphatic dunk that got the TD Garden crowd up off their seats.
A couple possessions later at the start of the second quarter, a Brad Wanamaker strip and pass ahead to Brown led to free throws for JB. After another stop and Brown bucket, Smart poked the ball away from Allen Crabbe and took a pass back from Brown for an easy layup to cut the lead down to 8 and bring the Celtics right back into the game.
It was a quick 7-0 run all sparked by defense that ignited the Celtics comeback as they couldn’t get going in the half court. So far on the year, Boston has been exceptionally good at forcing turnovers, with the third-highest defensive TOV% at 16.5 (according to Cleaning the Glass), as Brown, Smart, and Tatum have all developed into exceptional and opportunistic wing defenders. The latter two are especially adept at forcing turnovers and deflections on the defensive end, Smart ranks in the 89th percentile of all guards in terms of defensive activity, while Tatum is in the 89th percentile of all wings. As we can see on this chart, despite Tatum’s relatively inefficient start to the year offensively, he’s been an extraordinarily impressive defender.
It's discussed far less than his offensive game, but Jayson Tatum has developed into an exceptional wing defender this year and is a big reason why the Celtics have a top 5 defense in the league. #NBATwitter #Celtics— Arjun Balaraman (@arjun_balaraman) January 6, 2020
Again, happy to take any requests for bar charts. pic.twitter.com/6ztxG5pWcn
Against Chicago, three transition plays proved crucial in an extended late-third, early-fourth quarter run that gave the Celtics enough breathing room to withstand a late Bulls comeback. It all started with this great look from rookie Grant Williams who fed his big man, Enes Kanter, running the floor with a gorgeous bounce pass.
A few minutes later, in the fourth, back-to-back plays by Javonte Green helped extend the Boston lead to 16 with just under ten minutes to go. First, there was this steal and thunderous slam and, on the very next defensive possession, Green intercepted another pass from Coby White and fed Tatum from the easy deuce forcing Jim Boylen into a timeout.
The Bulls went on a big run following the timeout, and much of that was due to the Celtics’ inability to get out and play in transition. Some sloppy giveaways and bad shots led to fast break baskets for the Bulls meant the C’s were forced to play against a set defense for much of that Chicago run.
For the second night in a row, defense turned out to be the best offense for a Celtics team that struggled in the half court without their star point guard. In games where Walker has played, the Celtics have scored about 97.4 points per 100 possessions in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass, good for third in the league. Over the last two nights, they averaged just 87.6.
Over the course of the year, the Celtics have been pretty good about getting out in transition and running, with 16.2% of their plays starting in transition, good for fifth in the league. But they’ve been quite inefficient when they do run, ranking just 26th in points per transition play prior to the recent back-to-back. While they remained relatively inconsistent in terms of converting the chances against the Hawks, the performance against Chicago ranked in the 93rd percentile for points per transition play.
For what it’s worth, Walker has struggled in transition so far this year. According to NBA.com, he’s shot just 38.9% in transition on nearly 2.5 attempts a night, logging just 0.91 PPP, while Tatum, Brown, and Hayward have all logged above 1.13.
Kemba figures to be back from illness soon. But even when he is back, this Celtics team has proven to be more than capable of forcing turnovers, and when Walker sits, they should look to get out in transition and capitalize on their athleticism as much as possible.