Since starting the season 2-5, the Boston Celtics have picked up the pace. Despite a two-week injury to Jaylen Brown, they let their amazing defense lead the way. In the month of November (where the Celtics are 7-4), their defense ranks fourth in the NBA (102.4 DRTG) and their offense ranks 18th (108.2 ORTG). Boston’s offense looked rough at the start of the season, as they were relying on a lot of isolation, and their ball movement was lackluster. However, the C’s are slowly starting to turn things around on that front.
You can make the math as complicated as you want in today's NBA.— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) November 23, 2021
But the Celtics' turnaround, 8-3 over the last three weeks, isn't too hard to figure out. pic.twitter.com/zsmS3BOWaq
In their last three games (which is obviously a very small sample size), the Celtics’ offensive rating is 116.3. Scoring 130 points against the Los Angeles Lakers inflated that number, but putting up that many points against any team is an impressive feat in and of itself. Their offensive success in the last three games is something they should strive to mimic for the rest of the season.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, they found much success utilizing a simple basketball mechanic - the drive-and-kick - and let it be the baseline for their offense. Head coach Ime Udoka found ways to spice it up, create pressure with off-ball movement, and cause havoc for opposing defenses. While the Thunder may not be an elite defensive team in the NBA, they still rank in the top half of the league on that end of the floor (106.8 DRTG, 15th in NBA).
First and foremost, their passing was nothing short of magnificent against the Thunder. This play is the perfect example of how to run the offense:
As simple as it may seem, this is exactly the type of offense Udoka has been preaching all year. Evidently, it just took the C’s a little while to perfect it.
The Celtics’ recent offensive improvements have also allowed Tatum to find a rhythm. Instead of settling for step-back threes and isolation looks (on which he shoots 31.5 percent), the offense is finding him easy shots. The play above is an excellent illustration. Up to that point in the game, Tatum was 2-of-5 from the field, including 0-for-3 from deep. From then on, after the Celtics got him an easy look from behind the arc, Tatum finished the game shooting 9-of-17 from the field and 6-of-9 from range.
Boston’s win over the Houston Rockets marked Tatum’s fourth straight 30-point night, and after a struggling to start the year, this is a very welcomed change. Not only is he reaping the rewards of the drive-and-kick offense, but he’s using that success to find other looks on the floor as well. Udoka touched on the superstar’s improvements after the game:
NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin: “Four straight games for Jayson, 30-plus, what’s the biggest difference you’re seeing in him?”
Udoka: “Shotmaking, I mean, the shots that he was getting, he’s knocking them down now. Being extra aggressive, I think, attacking the basket a little bit more, getting more free throws. That’s happened over the last few games. But, still doing what he did early, getting the same shots that he was missing that we knew would flip eventually. But he’s also finding guys, passing the ball extremely well. So, very well-rounded games in general. The scoring is there because of the made shots, but we never overreacted to that in the first place.”
While getting Tatum hot is essential, he’s not the only player benefitting from the drive-and-kick offense. Grant Williams has been hot from behind the three-point arc, and his consistent shooting has been crucial. After the Thunder game, Udoka said that other players are “looking for him knowing the crowd that they draw, and he’s ready to let it go.” As of now, Williams is shooting 55.6 percent on corner threes. The last time the Celtics had a player shoot above 50 percent from the corner on at least one attempt per game was during the 2010-11 season. His name was Ray Allen.
Drive-and-kicks aren’t effective unless the drive is established properly, though. If the Celtics pose no threat of finishing at the rim, then opponents would have no reason to help on the drive. In turn, no one is left open on the perimeter, and so on. Dennis Schroder has been key in helping Boston create a presence at the rim. Plays like this one have set the tone:
Schroder drives hard off of a hand-off from Horford at the elbow. By the time he gets into the paint, it’s far too late for Thunder rookie Josh Giddey to give help from the corner. The German point guard finishes through contact with a nifty floater over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
It’s these sorts of plays that force defenders to help on the drive. The night prior, after the Celtics’ win over the Lakers, he talked about being aggressive and attacking the paint:
“Yeah, I mean, I’ve been doing that my whole career. Trying to be aggressive, trying to put pressure on the rim. I think, our group, you know, we just got to, can’t let people off the hook. We just got to be aggressive, put pressure on the rim, and I think that’s when we’re at our best.”
And as much as analytics people may hate it, Boston’s mid-range game has looked great as well. Two players in particular have put the mid-range back on the map for the C’s - Josh Richardson and Schroder.
Schroder was living in the mid-range against the Thunder. While most fans would prefer he get to the basket, if the shots are falling, the shots are falling. Some of the jumpers he took don’t qualify as “mid-range” shots since he was inside the paint, but the point is he was making use of his jump shot from inside the three-point line. He took 11 shots from 5-19 feet from the hoop, converting seven of them (63.6 percent).
Meanwhile, Richardson showed off his mid-range prowess against the Lakers. During a first quarter where the Celtics were getting killed, he helped keep them alive with shots like this one:
He’s been great from mid-range all year long, keeping defenses honest and shooting 54.2 percent on 1.7 attempts per game. That mark ranks top-15 in the league among players who attempt at least one per game. If the Celtics are just taking layups and threes, then the defense has no reason to leave the paint. Having players who excel in that in-between area has been vital.
There’s still plenty of work to do for the Celtics though. They still rank 19th in the league in assists (22.7), but there have been notable improvements in the passing game. Marcus Smart deserves a ton of credit for that, as he’s averaged 7.5 assists over the past four games. Horford even commented on the need to keep the ball moving after Monday’s win over the Rockets:
“Just continue to build on the things that coach keeps harping on. You know, playing with more pace on offense, making sure that we’re moving the ball better, we did a much better job in the second half tonight [vs. Rockets].”
Integrating Brown and Robert Williams back into the offense will be a challenge, too. The C’s struggled to get things going in the first quarter, but by the time the second half came around, so did their offense. Williams found his niche on the offensive glass and Brown caught fire from range.
Overnight success is only real in movies and television. The Celtics’ offense is not going to be top-10 in the league in the next week, and it may never reach that mark all season. The important thing is, they have found ways to improve on that end. Their defense has been too good to be wasted by a lack of pressure on the other end of the floor.