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Celtics’ ball movement against Denver a window into how they can succeed

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A concerted effort to move the ball has been a noticeable key to victory for the Celtics in recent games.

Denver Nuggets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the biggest criticisms of the Boston Celtics’ underwhelming 14-13 start to the 2020-21 season has been the absence of considerable ball movement. They’re just outside a bottom-third team in passes per game (283.1) and the passes they do make don’t offer many scoring opportunities. Only the New York Knicks generate fewer potential assists per game (40.3 for the Cs), which explains their ranking as the third-worst team in actual assists per game (21.9).

In last night’s 112-99 win over the Denver Nuggets, Boston looked different from their prior two losses to Detroit and Washington, making 319 passes that resulted in 42 potential assists. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker set the unselfish tone with 17 of Boston’s 26 assists on the night and the Celtics got to snap Denver’s three-game winning streak because of it.

“That’s what we basically talked about most of shootaround this morning,” Brad Stevens said of his team’s ball movement following the victory to halt a two-game losing skid.

“We rewarded guys for running more than we have in the last few weeks, and we rewarded guys for cutting more than we have in the last few weeks, and that’s a huge part of teamness and making the right play and all that other stuff.”

Denver Nuggets v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

With two scorers the caliber of Tatum and Brown, an equal-opportunity offense never made sense for the Celtics. Those two make up one of the highest-scoring duos in the league, both fully capable of generating high-quality offense. Boston has leaned into those skills, ranking among the most frequent isolation teams resulting in career-high scoring numbers for both.

Yet as great as those two have been, they haven’t been great enough to lead their team out beyond a middle-of-the-pack offense. No two players alone are. You need other guys to pull their weight, but that can’t happen if the opportunity isn’t there for them to try.

This is of particular importance as the Celtics try to bring the majority of its rotation up to the speed of its core quartet. With questions surrounding guys like Grant Williams and Javonte Green, more involvement is the key to speeding up their development and ability to be trusted when Brad Stevens needs them.

It’s a balancing act between two stylistic preferences, and Boston has received a taste at what teetering in either direction can result in over these last few games.

For reference, below are once again the passing and potential assist numbers for the Celtics on the season as a whole so far:

  • Passes per game: 283.1
  • Potential assists per game: 40.3

In last Thursday’s 14-point win over the Toronto Raptors, the Celtics made 311 passes and generated 54 potential assists, winding up with 30 dimes on the night. Combined in the back-to-back losses to the Pistons and Wizards, Boston averaged just 272 passes with 34 potential assists. They combined for a total of just 29 assists across those 96 minutes.

Denver doesn’t possess the most stifling of defenses, but in trying to reestablish what helped them against Toronto, the Celtics made sure to capitalize by pulling it in every which direction, starting with their very first possession that swung the ball across both sides of the floor.

“The ball moved right out of the gate,” Stevens said. “Even though we weren’t making shots in the first couple of minutes, the ball was popping around the way that it hasn’t been.”

Unpredictability is the key to a dynamic offense, but more important than making defenses wonder where a player is going to shoot the ball from is ensuring they have no idea who among the five players on the court will be the one to get the shot off.

The more rotations a defense is forced to execute, the more slip-ups they run the risk of making, exposing windows of opportunity opposing teams can easily capitalize on.

The flipside to Boston’s encouraging 26 assists were 20 turnovers, typically an eyesore of a number when taking care of the basketball is one of the top priorities for all teams. But there’s a sliver of optimism to be gleaned from Boston’s at times careless play.

The Celtics are trying to rewire their tendencies to incorporate more ball movement for the betterment of their potential as a collective unit. That’s not an easy task at any point during the year much less nearly 30 games in, which is why there are bound to be some rough patches involved in the process.

In this instance, the result was one of Boston’s highest turnover totals of the season, but there’s something to be said about certain bad passes knowing they’re the frustrating steps this team is willing to take to progress towards eventually making better ones.

“It’s about being consistent,” Brown said after the win of the trials that come with moving the basketball. “I’m a big part of that. We’re playing different roles. We’re doing different things. It’s about learning and growing.”

“We need wins like that. Some wins against some good opponents that fire us up and things like that, because that can carry over to next games and stuff like that.”

With any luck, the passing and ball movement will be a major part of that carry over, and perhaps Boston’s season can begin trending in the right direction.