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Celtics defensive identity fueling offensive improvement

The Celtics defense has fueled Boston’s recent 19-7 run, but it’s their ever improving offense that will keep them in their championship conversation.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

It takes the power generated by thirteen Hoover Dams to send the Space Shuttle into space. That’s 11,000 pounds of fuel per second burned by its boosters. The Celtics defense has been the rockets to Boston’s meteoric rise in the Eastern Conference standings, but to stay in contention, it’s their offense that needs to keep them in orbit.

As the old adage goes, it’s a make or miss league and while we can leave some of those bounces up to the basketball gods, for the Celtics, they’re trying to take more control of their fate on the offensive end and it’s working:

Celtics Offensive Improvement

Month Offensive Rating
Month Offensive Rating
October 103.5
November 107.2
December 111.5
January 112.2
February 117.2

First, the three-point shooting has reached an expected level. No one thought they were as bad as their sub-33% mark through their first twenty games and they've seemed to plateaued around 36% in the new year. However, making more threes hasn't exactly been the key to their turnaround on the offensive end. They’ve in fact tapered down their 3’s from 27.1 3FGA’s in 2021 to 24.7 3FGA’s in 2022.

Instead, the Celtics have married their gritty defensive identity to some of their offensive principles. Where they're trying to generate more points is in transition. Against the Nets on Thursday night, they ran roughshod in Brooklyn for 23 points on the fast break. “I thought Marcus Smart was great pushing the pace for us tonight. I’m trying to push the ball,” Al Horford said. “Everyone is playing faster. It makes a big difference for us offensively.”

They won’t get out and run that much all the time, but it’s certainly trending in that direction:

Celtics Fast Break Points Per Game

Month Fast Break Points
Month Fast Break Points
October 13.7
November 7.7
December 9.3
January 10.9
February 15

It’s been a point of emphasis and pride for the team. “It’s been us realizing great defense keys great offense,” Rob Williams said.

With less of a focus on perimeter shooting, they’ve also naturally increased their scoring in the paint, presumably more of a sure thing than the temperamental nature of game-to-game 3FG%.

Celtics Points in the Paint

Month Points in the Paint
Month Points in the Paint
October 46.7
November 42.4
December 44.8
January 43.8
February 50.7

Through thirty-six games in 2021, the Celtics were 8th in the league in drives per game (50.0). They maintained that aggression from January 1 to the trade deadline on February 10 with 46.7 takes a night. However, in the five games since effectively replacing Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson with Derrick White and Payton Pritchard, they’ve gone down to 30 a night. That could be the product of a pair of blowouts against Philadelphia and Brooklyn or some scorching hot shooting of late (60-of-145 from behind the arc over their last four games), but they’ll still need to be able to attack the paint during the playoffs when the game settles into a more halfcourt affair.

As important as it is for the Celtics to have shooters surrounding their playmakers, it’s even better if those shooters can also act as secondary creators off the dribble. On Saturday afternoon, we got a glimpse of what the second unit could provide moving forward.

Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard are currently Boston’s best three-point shooters percentage-wise and they will surely be relied on to take advantage of catch-and-shoot opportunities, but the more rotations they can force opposing defenses to make, the better their shot quality will be.

On the offensive end, the Celtics have to think as if they’re, well, playing against their own suffocating defense. Every paint touch, every side-to-side rotation, and every overcommitment a defender makes puts opposing teams in danger. If every player in the rotation 1 through 8 can attack closeouts and make a play for their other four teammates on the floor, they become as dangerous as their switch everything defense.