Despite a 1-2 start that felt like the sky was falling, the Boston Celtics have since won six of their last seven games to sit tops in the Eastern Conference with a 7-3 record.
There are certain trends backed by yearly consistency. Others spring to life without a previously established foundation. It’s the latter numbers that are proceeded with caution out of fear they’ll quickly disappear when the law of averages takes over. Evaluating early-season success is always difficult, especially in a season where the continuous flare-ups of player absences can skew the data we use to draw conclusions.
It’s for that reason that while Celtics games continue to get postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, now seems like as good a time as any to look at six of their most surprising numbers from the early hot start to assess whether or not they’re here to stay.
Payton Pritchard’s 22.9 minutes a night
How is the reigning 26th overall pick earning the fifth-most minutes per game on a team coming off a run to the conference finals?
The absence of Kemba Walker has Boston looking for point guard play wherever it can be found, but Pritchard has earned the right to be the next man up while the All-Star works his way back.
Pritchard gets to the rim and finishes at a 66.7 percent clip. He’s converting 42.3 percent of 2.3 3-point attempts per game. If efficiency isn’t enough of a determining factor, know this: over the last eight games — the start of his emergence — Pritchard is a +56 in 191 minutes, second only to Jayson Tatum.
Walker’s inevitable return will likely cut into his playing time, but Pritchard has so clearly leapfrogged Jeff Teague as the backup point guard as a much better fit alongside Boston’s core. As long as that role remains secure, the exact number of minutes hardly matters.
Boston’s 19th-ranked defensive rating of 110.4
The Celtics were a top-five defensive team last season. Now? They’re hovering dangerously close to falling into the bottom third of the league.
With Gordon Hayward slotted in the front court, Boston could switch almost everything. Starting two bigs puts a lot more pressure on the perimeter guys to fight over screens and stay attached to their man. When they don’t, a chain effect is set off that can lead to open shots near the rim or beyond the arc. Compared to last season, opponents are shooting better within five feet of the rim (59.7—>67.0) and on threes (34.0—>36.9).
Barring the use of their trade exception, Boston doesn’t have the personnel to reestablish that defensive identity. Perhaps the return of Romeo Langford and his 6’11’’ wingspan could help, but that’s asking an awful lot of a player with less than 400 minutes of NBA experience.
The best answer might be swapping Theis for Pritchard in the starting lineup and having each of Smart, Brown, and Tatum move down a position. Though the 6’1’’ Pritchard is limited in the range of opponent he can match up against, the same could be said of Kemba and the Celtics managed to make do in those minutes, at least during the regular season.
According to Cleaning The Glass, Boston is surrendering a modest 1.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Pritchard on the court. Walker will eventually retake the starting job, but Pritchard should still find minutes as his backup and in his place more than usual considering the precarious nature of Kemba’s knee.
Though not a fix-all solution to regain top-five status, a commitment to lineups that bred similar success a year ago is the only way Boston’s defense can begin to pick up momentum.
-18.1 net rating for the two-man combo of Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis
The frontcourt pairing of Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson was a logical early-season experiment for Brad Stevens given the significant question marks surrounding alternatives like Grant Williams or Semi Ojeleye. At the very least, Stevens knew his two bigs could play. But through 10 games, they clearly can’t play with each other.
Among two-man combos with more than 90 minutes of playing time, Theis and Thompson have the worst net rating on the Celtics and the 13th-worst mark in the entire NBA.
Thompson has been his usual unrelenting self on the glass, pulling down 8.5 rebounds a game.
Theis, on the other hand, is being asked to play to his weaknesses. Though not a quality outside shooter, his 3-point attempt rate has jumped nearly 10 points from his previous career-high mark — now at 35.0 percent. Guarding forwards and wings has him plaguing Boston’s defense to the tune of an additional 9.5 points per 100 compared to last season — per CTG.
There’s no route for two role players with overlapping skills of such specificity to thrive alongside each other. So that horrid net rating won’t improve. Mitigating the damage will come down to how much longer Stevens thinks it can.
31.1 3-point attempts per game (25th most in the league)
33.2 percent of Boston’s offense came from beyond the arc last season, 15th in the league. That number has only slightly decreased to 32.4 percent to start this season, which remains a middle-of-the-pack mark.
Though not too reliant on the 3-pointer, a drop-off in attempts is cause for some concern. The Celtics were 13th in attempts last season at 34.5 before falling to 25th this year at 31.1 a night.
Cut down on 3-point attempts if you struggle to make them, but the Celtics currently rank third in percentage behind only the Clippers and Bucks.
How much of that efficiency is a function of lower volume is a legitimate question. Boston would be wise to try and maintain that proficiency with added attempts to further boost a top-10 offense that has so far had to carry a subpar defense.
The return of Walker — who ranked 10th in 3-point attempts per game last year with 8.3 a night — and hopefully the removal of Theis from the PF spot should help them give it an honest go.
11.6 offensive rebounds per game (tied for fourth-most in the league)
The presence of Tristan Thompson has turned the Celtics into one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league. Thompson ranks 11th in offensive rebounds per game with 3.1, pulling them down at the second-best rate of his career.
His relentless pursuit of the basketball was to be expected upon signing. What Boston couldn’t totally be sure of was the emergence of Robert Williams III as a legitimate rotational center in part because of the work he’s done to earn extra possessions.
Among players averaging at least 2.5 offensive rebounds a night, Williams does so in the fewest minutes per game at 16.3.
Theis, Brown, and Grant Williams are each grabbing over one offensive rebound per game, but it’s Robert Williams and Thompson who make up more than half of the Celtics’ offensive rebounding numbers.
Thompson’s effort in that department will remain, while Williams’ production might actually have room to grow with more playing time he’s forcing Stevens to give him.
17.2—>18.5 minutes a night from the bench (23rd rank last year to 14th this year)
In a season where players could wind up inactive at any moment and with bench production a previous concern, Stevens has gone to greater lengths to develop his second unit by giving several members more chances to prove themselves worthy of a spot in the rotation.
The gamble has so far paid off. Boston’s second-unit is currently churning out an extra 4.5 points per game compared to last season while canning 40.4 percent of its 3-point tries, a top-10 mark among benches.
Pritchard’s emergence has factored into that productivity. Robert Williams has cut down on his fouls long enough to impact the game over prolonged stretches. Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye have so far proven to be capable shooters, both drilling 3-pointers above a 40-percent clip.
Stevens didn’t give the bench much run last season because he didn’t feel like he could. Of Boston’s top-five leaders in plus/minus this season, four now come off the bench. As long as a similar trend continues, he’ll have no reason to feel that way anymore.