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Squeezing the lemon: after hot shooting start, Celtics are finding other ways to win

With their three-point percentages levelling off, Boston has become a defensive force again and started winning games in the margins.

Boston Celtics v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Remember in The Social Network when Sean Parker asks Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, “a million dollars isn’t cool — you know what’s cool?” A pregnant pause, then, “a billion dollars.”

Keep that in mind.

In November, the Celtics went 14-2. That rocket ship start to the regular season included a nine-game winning streak and legitimate buzz that Jayson Tatum was an MVP favorite. However, the headline was their torrid offense and (at the time) its historic pace of 123.8 points per 100 possessions. With Jaylen Brown also having a career year and head coach Joe Mazzulla perfectly utilizing Boston’s depth, what was a weakness last season had suddenly morphed into a free-flowing hurricane that could bury teams in an avalanche of 3’s.

It didn’t matter that their defense (111.6 DefRtg) hadn’t carried over from last season (105.2 DefRtg through 46 regular season games post-January 1st). With the team shooting over 40% from behind the arc, they could afford to rest on their offensive laurels.

But smoking teams on the offensive end can build in a little complacency. That’s human nature, but to win a championship, you have to be supernatural. Those Warriors championship teams from the 2010’s weren’t just powered by incredible shooting; they also boasted some of the best (if not the best) defensive numbers in the league.

Fast forward a few weeks. A shooting slump that started in California deboarded with them at Logan International. A seven-game stretch from the Bay to Christmas Eve had Boston making just 29% of their threes which lead to three straight losses to sub-.500 teams.

But below the surface, the team was improving. Because you know what’s cooler than a great offense? A devastating defense to match, like the one Boston flexed less than a year ago.

Joe Mazzulla was steadfast in his confidence that despite the L's, Boston was playing well and he was right. Shots weren't falling, but on the defensive side of the ball, the Celtics were regaining the switchy nastiness that made them title contenders last season. Boston is now 7th in the league in defensive efficiency and climbing. They’re allowing just 107.0 points per 100 possessions which ranks them 2nd in December. Sound familiar?

More so, there's the margin of error in the intangibles that Mazzulla is trying to widen too, the gray area where guys like Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Robert Williams thrive in. After the Celtics beat the Bucks on Christmas Day, Joe Mazzulla noted that the team won the game’s “four factors”: effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, transition points, and offensive rebounding.

Yes, the three-point shot is a big part of Boston’s offense and a deciding factor with why Boston ranks third in eFG% behind the Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets. You can see Brad Stevens’ fingerprints all over the gameplan after he signed Sam Hauser long term, picked up Danilo Gallinari, and traded for Malcolm Brogdon. But so are easy buckets at the free throw line and around the rim. Despite a 3-3 record during the homestand, Boston is averaging 25.6 free throw attempts per game; on their six-game road trip prior, that number was 20.3. Naturally, much of that has come from Tatum and Brown in what is largely considered a measurement of superstardom. The duo is averaging nearly 14 free throw attempts per game combined; that’s on par with Joel Embiid and James Harden (18.6) and Anthony Davis and LeBron James (13.2).

The Celtics are already one of the most surehanded teams in the NBA, averaging just 13.7 turnovers a game (7th). Where they’ve improved in December is turning opposing teams over. When they were on their November tear, their points off turnovers differential was only a +3. During the homestand, they’re third in the league at generating points of TO’s at 19.3 and giving up the third fewest at 14. To wit, their activity on defense has also fueled their transition games. They’re fourth in fast break points (18.7) and and ninth in preventing them (12.5).

As exciting as Rob Williams return has been with a handful of alley-oops and blocked shots, it’s in the dirty work where we’ve seen his biggest influence. Over the homestand, the Celtics are outrebounding their guests on the offensive glass 90-65 and outscoring them 100-82 in second chance points.

With a final home game against the Clippers set for Thursday, the Celtics are about to embark on another four-game west coast road trip at the turn of the new year. They’ve blown the doors off their last three opponents and we’re finally seeing this team fully formed: an offensive juggernaut and stout defense with versatility at every position, two young superstars entering their prime, and a coaching staff emphasizing the nitty gritty. That’s cool.

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