After the Celtics took care of business in the first round of the playoffs, completing a sweep of Joel Embiid the Philadelphia 76ers, I decided to go back and take a look at some numbers that stood out to me. Obviously, the caveat is that four games are a very small sample size. With that being said, here are five stats that I think were most important to the Celtics’ success:
+12: Boston’s fast break points per game differential over Philadelphia
When the opposing team’s small forward is the same size as your center, it’s always going to be tough to win the rebounding battle. The Celtics knew going into the Philly series that they would need to be careful with the ball, and force as many turnovers as possible to gain back those lost possessions from rebounding. After a convincing sweep, they finished the four games averaging just over 10.5 turnovers a night, lowest in the league during the playoffs and well below the season average of 13.8.
They’ve been pretty good at keeping a hold of the ball all year – that 13.8 ranks 7th lowest in the league. But where Boston really managed to thrive in the series was in converting the Sixers’ turnovers into points, and vice versa, preventing the Sixers from converting on their transition opportunities. Without the freight train that is Ben Simmons in transition, the Celtics did a great job of hustling back and preventing any sort of easy looks for Philadelphia as shown above, allowing just 4.8 fast-break points a game – easily the lowest during the playoffs.
The Celtics took advantage on the other end, too, raking in 16.8 points for themselves on the fast break every night, behind only Toronto, their upcoming second round opponents. As we can see on the below plot, the Celtics really stand out there in the bottom right in terms of fast-break success.
26.5: % of 76ers’ true shooting attempts at the rim (including fouls)
Again, when your center is the same size as the opposing small forward, you also know that the other team will likely have the advantage on the interior. So, how exactly did the Celtics then outscore Philadelphia in the paint? Well, they didn’t let them get there in the first place. The Celtics ranked 4th on the year in defensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass, trailing only the Lakers, Raptors, and Bucks.
Unlike the Celtics, all of the top three teams are set up more like traditional defensive powerhouses, anchored around behemoth bigs in Brook Lopez (Bucks), Anthony Davis (Lakers), and Marc Gasol (Raptors). But the best form of rim protection is not allowing shots at the rim in the first place and, while Daniel Theis has done a great job down low, Boston has managed to sustain their defensive excellence thanks to their three-headed monster on the perimeter in Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown.
Smart and Brown are excellent point-of-attack defenders, both are versatile and strong enough to keep bodies out of the paint. Tatum plays more of a free safety role, clogging the passing lanes inside. The chemistry between them has worked wonders.
Against Joel Embiid and the Sixers, the Celtics did an excellent job of preventing entry passes into Embiid and trying to double early enough before he got inside. Of course, Embiid is one of the most talented centers in the game and certainly enjoyed success when he got down low. By limiting his, and the rest of the team’s, touches in dangerous areas in the first place, the Celtics managed to somewhat diminish his impact. The Sixers took 33% of their shots at the rim during the season, and the 26.5% in the post season ranked 13th out of the 16 playoff teams.
72.8: combined points per game from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker
Prior to the restart, I wrote a piece on the historical scoring pace of the Celtics top 4 (Tatum, Brown, Walker, and Hayward). After Gordon Hayward went down in Game 1, the scoring burden shifted even more towards the top-3. They delivered in style, with a combined 72.8 points between them - third highest for any trio so far in this year’s playoffs, trailing only the Jazz (Mitchell, Clarkson, Gobert) and Mavericks (Luka, Kristaps, Tim Hardaway Jr.).
Brown has been excellent this year. He manages to score 20 points a game without the team having to run too many plays through him. With a variety of cuts, transition plays, and spot-up looks, Brown has found a nice niche in this Celtics offense that doesn’t ask him to do too much.
What’s great about the Boston offense is that there are enough weapons so players don’t have to force up bad shots. If anyone is double-teamed or trapped, the Celtics are comfortable making the open pass and waiting for the right look. It’s how, remarkably, the three managed to combine for 72.8 points while each finishing the series with a true shooting percentage above 60%.
1.17: Celtics’ points per possession by pick-and-roll ball handler (ending in a FG, FT, or TO)
Speaking of Walker and Tatum, where they really killed the Sixers was in the pick-and-roll. As we’ve written about extensively on this site in recent days, the Sixers ran drop coverage against Boston. It played right into the Celtics’ hands, gifting open pull-up jumpers to a pair of the best pull-up shooters in the league.
While Walker’s threes weren’t falling as much as usual, he simply adjusted and took a step in, and started to destroy the Sixers in the mid-range, as our very own Adam Taylor did a great job of noting here. Tatum, with his high release point and size advantage over defenders Matisse Thybulle and Josh Richardson, was able elevate and not be bothered by Sixers contests.
Celtics killed the Sixers drop coverage all night - per NBA stats, scoring a crazy 1.29 PPP (averaged 0.98 during season) on possessions used by PnR ball-handlers, and even the misses were good looks.— Arjun Balaraman (@arjun_balaraman) August 20, 2020
Just tough to drop vs. elite pull-up shooters in Tatum and Kemba @celticsblog pic.twitter.com/CfGHpIQ2zm
During the regular season, the Raptors occasionally ran some drop coverage with Marc Gasol, but Nick Nurse is a master of adjusting, and the Celtics are bound to see a plethora of different looks in the next series. The pick-and-roll is a huge part of the Celtics’ game, as we can see below. With more of the game played in the half court during the playoffs, the Celtics will have to figure out the Raptors’ coverage - as they did with Philly - if they have any chance of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.
+4.4: Celtics bench +/- during the series
The much-maligned Celtics bench unit proved a lot of people wrong, putting together some solid performances to finish with an average +4.4 plus-minus on the series. It was always going to be a tough series for Theis, and Kanter and Timelord did an excellent job of helping him out on Embiid and really making it a committee effort on the Sixers star center.
The bench was especially big in Game 2, where Boston fell behind to an early 27-14 deficit in the first quarter, before Brad Stevens tried out a Tatum plus four bench players lineup that brought the C’s storming back.
Stevens said, “the bench took a game that wasn’t going our way and changed it. Those guys did what they do, and we need them to keep doing what they do…I never would have thought we would have stayed with that group that long, and I didn’t want to take them out.”
Offensively, it was the Tatum Show, but on defense, rookies Romeo Langford and Grant Williams competed hard and did a solid job on the Sixers. With Hayward out for the Toronto series and the Celtics facing one of the deepest teams in the NBA, Stevens will need the bench to keep up the effort and intensity against the Raptors.