The answers all along were pretty simple. For most of the season, the Celtics have been unhealthy in the most Celtics ways possible, as they’ve missed the most games to COVID-related health and safety protocols by an enormous margin. The issues with the offense have mostly been systemic rather than individuals with high turnovers, low free throws, low efficiency, and generally low everything. Until now!
Following the team’s win over the Lakers and road trip three-game sweep, the Celtics rank 17th in turnovers committed. Their 14.1 turnovers per game is notably better than earlier in the season, even if it still ranks them in the bottom half of the league. Only nine turnovers were committed in each game against the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets, compared to 21 against the Hospital Lakers. Six of those came in the preemptive garbage time from the third-stringers while Brad was stockpiling timeouts. Still, the Celtics’ starters built a 20+ point lead by not giving the ball away at an alarming pace despite giving the ball up too many times with risky full-court passes.
Free throw totals have fluctuated, although I don’t care about team totals as much as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s. Three of Tatum’s last four games at the line are pretty encouraging:
vs. Minnesota: 15-16
@ Denver: 8-8
@ Portland: 8-10
@ Los Angeles: zero free throws attempted, which is honestly fine because Jaylen was absolutely cooking.
TNT: Tatum and Thompson
Tatum’s true shooting percentage has slowly crept up to 57.2%, almost exactly even with the league’s average. The formula for increased efficiency is exactly what you’d expect—finishing at the rim, earning free throws, and hitting threes. Some credit here goes to Tristan Thompson who looks like a new man after getting COVID, which is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever typed out. Boston ditching the double-big lineup at the cost of dumping Daniel Theis has done well for the starting lineup, despite some slow starts. This clip, and the breakdown by Nekias, has every benefit all in one:
We know Jayson Tatum (@jaytatum0) is bonafide bucket-getter, and the seeds of reactive passing have been growing over the past couple of seasons.— (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) April 16, 2021
But what happens when the manipulation starts showing up? We get magic.
️SOUND ON pic.twitter.com/XZPbF2S13u
Thompson helps Tatum probe the defense while three other Celtics threaten to score from the perimeter. Tatum drives and makes the right read. It’s perfect. This is how it should work, and of course it wasn’t possible with the Thompson/Theis lineup.
In addition, Thompson’s six blocks in the past seven games has done well enough to make up for Theis’ lost defense. Here’s something I noticed after the Celtics beat the Knicks:
Not sure what changed with Tristan Thompson but he had only 13 blocks in 36 games before last night, when he recorded 3 blocks. So nearly 1/4 of his total for the season in 22 minutes.— Jeremy&Jeremy (@JeremyWCT) April 8, 2021
Grant Williams, who’s shared a lot of front court minutes with Thompson lately, has also shown flashes of being a steady defender after a brutal first half of the season.
Plus/minus isn’t the best indicator for personal success, but Grant is plus-74 in Boston’s last eight games, so he has do be doing something right. The Celtics have been significantly better in the second half, which is when Grant tends to do his best work as well. Lillard was kind of begging for his layup to get stuffed in the clip above, but Grant is such a foul magnet that any blocks and charges drawn by him are a victory in my book. And when you consider how ghastly the Celtics’ fourth quarter execution was earlier in the season, it’s quite the luxury for their ninth best player to thrive in the fourth quarter.
The last big change to the Celtics’ scheme is the most obvious: Rob Williams as a starter. Thirty-four assists in 10 games is astronomically higher than I expected, and did you know he was seventh in the league in blocked shots? Seventh! For reference, Myles Turner leads the league in blocked shots with 159 in 1422 minutes played, while Rob has 84 blocks in 888 minutes played. Per 100 possessions, Turner leads him by only 0.8 blocks.
Good physical health is unsurprisingly at the core of Boston’s recent success, but the uptick in shot blocking, passing, and free throws (mostly by Tatum) are exactly what the team needed to turn the corner. Knocking down threes is important as well, but I think those come as a result of taking care of all the other little things, not the other way around. Driving the ball opens up passing lanes and forces defenders to help off of shooters. Tightening up the defense leads to more transition offense. Shooting the ball well, on the other hand, doesn’t really lead to those other things. So, when the Jays aren’t shooting the lights out, the Celtics have shown they still have the other necessary tools to win. I hope.