After the dust of a very active trade deadline settled, the Celtics have been one of the best teams in the league. Injuries have created some potholes on Boston’s road to the playoffs, but they’ve been able to maneuver around them and post a 10-4 mark since March 25th.
More importantly, the Celtics have an identity. For most of the regular season, the team has largedly been defined by individual success: Jayson Tatum’s rocketing to superstardom, Jaylen Brown becoming an All-Star, Kemba Walker’s recovery from offseason, and the rise of Robert Williams. But during the final third of 2020-2021, the team has, well, looked like a team. Head coach Brad Stevens has credited health and availability for their improved play, but they’ve also made key adjustments on both sides of the ball.
The popular belief is that the Celtics are top-heavy and to some extent, they are. Rotations will undoubtedly shrink in the playoffs and obviously, Boston’s best foot forward is the foursome of Kemba, Smart, Brown and Tatum. Since inserting Robert Williams into the starting lineup, they’ve scored a blistering 123.6 points per 100 possessions over 97 minutes. Hotter still, with Tristan Thompson at center, that lineup has scored 141.1 points per 100 possessions in 36 minutes. The key to their success has been sharing the ball. Their assist rate is nearly at 75% on made field goals. Walker and Smart average nearly six assists each, Tatum checks in with 4.3 apg, and Williams has proved to be a valuable distributor for 3.4 dimes a night.
Another part of their resurgence has also been reshaping the offense around the three-point arc. Before the deadline, the Celtics ranked 20th in threes attempted per game (33.8 3FGA’s); since the deadline, that’s shot up considerably to 39.8 threes a night at a 37% clip. Part of that is due to eliminating a third center, Daniel Theis, from the rotation and playing those two-big lineups. Another is committing to the team’s strength; seven rotation players shoot over 35% from 3, which doesn’t include Kemba Walker at 34.5%.
The Celtics haven’t even really incorporated Evan Fournier either into their long distance attack. Before losing him to health and safety protocols, Fournier had hit 11 of his last 16 threes and was finding his groove as a Boston’s bench scorer. To live and die by the three-pointer may not be the most reliable offense, but it at least gives the team an identity that was sorely lacking earlier in the year.
There’s also been a commitment on the defensive end. Even as banged up as they’ve been, the Celtics sport the sixth best defense in the NBA. We know about the defensive prowess of two-time First Team All-Defense Marcus Smart and the length and athleticism of Tatum and Brown on the wings, but it’s two youngsters that have really put the clamps on opposing teams.
Of Boston’s five most used lineups since March 25th, the two with the lowest defensive ratings include the law offices of Williams & Williams. Paired with Smart, Tatum, and either Brown or Walker, the duo have helped produce a five-man lineup capable of giving up only 102.6 and 94.7 points per 100 possessions respectively. They gave MVP favorite Nikola Jokic fits in Denver and have been key in wins against bigger teams like the Knicks, Timberwolves, and Lakers.
Yes, the team has been healthier, but there’s still optimism that they aren’t even at peak levels yet. During their 10-4 stretch, the new starting lineup has only played seven games together. Williams has missed three games with knee soreness. Thompson and Fournier have combined to miss twenty-one games due to bouts with COVID. A flu has forced Walker, Smart, and Brown to sit out a handful of games of late. They’ve been good, but they can be even better come mid-May.