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Winning in the margins

It’s the little things.

An average NFL game includes 154 distinct plays split between offense, defense, and special teams. An average NBA game includes around 100 offensive possessions per team or 200 possessions total.

Even though the number of “plays” is fairly similar in a football game and a basketball game, we think about and consume the sports in vastly different ways. Basketball is a game of runs, flow, fluidity, and momentum, where possession changes hands constantly as dictated by the relentless metronome of the 24-second clock. Football is a game of stops and starts where each play lasts for an average of four violent, explosive seconds before each team regroups to plan their next move.

The ultimate goal for the 2023 Boston Celtics is no less than to claim the franchise’s 18th Larry O’Brien trophy. With such a lofty goal, the margin for error becomes so slim that a team must wring every last ounce of value out of every possession. In a sense, the Celtics need to drill down their core habits to the point where they bring a football player’s level of play-by-play focus to the fluidity of a series of possessions in a basketball game.

With that mindset as a guide, let’s explore one small focus area each rotation player (and the coach) can improve on to help the Celtics win the margins and bring home Banner 18.

Marcus Smart: Maintain an assist to turnover ratio higher than 3:1. Smart currently has a 3.2 A/TO ratio, which ranks 14th in the league. Anything over 3.0 is good for a top-20 ranking at the moment (Derrick White is also at 3.2, albeit at lower volume, for the sake of comparison). Smart’s A/TO ratio was 2.5, 2.8, and 2.5 the three seasons prior to this one; consequently, if he can maintain his current rate in the low 3s, it will mark a significant step forward in his ability to create high-quality shots for his teammates while valuing the basketball.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Derrick White - Increase FGA in losses to 7 or more per game. Derrick White is an awesome teammate, unselfish and team-oriented almost to a fault. The Celtics are at their best when White is aggressive to create for himself as well as others since it takes pressure off the Jays offensively. In losses this year, White has 6.3 FGA per game and averages 6.4 points on a .436 true shooting percentage. In wins, White has 7.9 FGA per game and averages 11.2 points on a .644 true shooting percentage.

One might be tempted to say, “Great! Finally, a self-aware player who shoots more when they are making them and less when they are not.” But the NBA Playoffs is all about the margins and the scouting report. Currently, the scouting report on White will read that he stops shooting if he misses early. White must fire up good looks regardless of how he starts games off in order to change his scouting report and convince the other teams in the league that he needs to be guarded on the perimeter EVERY night come playoff time.

Jaylen Brown - Improve 3P% to 36+%. I expected to target turnovers for Brown. While he is averaging a career-high 3.1 turnovers per game, his turnover rate is right in line with his career average, meaning his turnover jump is mostly a product of an increased usage rate. Instead, let’s focus on Brown’s career-low .329 3PT% (lower even than his .341% in his rookie year when he “couldn’t shoot”). With the Celtics free-flowing offense frequently generating high-quality looks from 3, it is more than fair to expect something in line with his .369 career average. As the Celtics move into the second half of their season, Brown would benefit from being more judicious in his shot selection from 3.

LA Clippers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Jayson Tatum - Average over 9 FTA per game and finish top 5 in FTA per game. Tatum is currently sitting at 8th in the NBA in FTA per game at 8.4 with MVP candidates such as Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.9), Joel Embiid (11.6), and Luka Doncic (11.3) headlining the top-3. Spots 5-10 all average between 8 and 9 FTA per game. Tatum has made consistent progress year over year in this statistic, moving from 3.2 to 2.9 to 4.7 to 5.3 to 6.2 to 8.4, which mirrors his development from younger role player to number one option to all-star to all-NBA to serious MVP candidate. Maintaining and building on his FTA rate will allow Tatum to carry a consistent scoring source he can count on into the playoff run.

Al Horford - Increase paint shots during playoffs. Horford’s current shot profile is as follows: 71/161 from 3 (44%), 4 for 13 from the midrange (31%), and 48-76 (63%) from 10 feet and in. That means 161/250 (64%) of Horford’s shots have come from 3 this season. While there is no reason for Horford to change that shot profile during the regular season (where the main goal should be to limit wear and tear on his 36 year old body), he needs to be ready to increase his paint production in the playoffs to closer to a 50/50 shot profile to take advantage of switching defenses that swarm the Jays and leave a defensive liability on Horford in the post.

Rob Williams - Increase shot creation responsibilities as a passer out of the high post. Anyone who watches the Celtics consistently is aware of Rob’s flashes of high-level passing vision. If those flashes can become a more consistent staple of his game and the Celtics offense, the ceiling rises for both the player and the team. Rob’s career assist percentage is 10.5 (9.4 this season) while Horford’s (generally regarded as one of the top passing bigs in the league) career percentage sits at 16.5. Nobody expects Rob to reach Horford’s level as a passer overnight, but the team would be wise to incorporate him more as a facilitator in the regular season to prepare for the postseason crucible. Rob will be the only non-shooter in the Celtics 8-man playoff rotation. If he can consistently create looks passing out of the elbows, it will add depth and variety to the Celtics offensive toolbox.

Malcolm Brogdon - Be ready to increase minutes load in the postseason. Let’s keep it simple with Brogdon. He has accepted a smaller regular season bench role in Boston with aplomb (career-low 23.4 minutes per game, 7th on the team) by posting a career high in true shooting percentage (.627). The Celtics are wisely taking the long view with Brogdon, who is the team’s 3rd-best pure scorer after the Jays. All Brogdon needs to do is take advantage of this long-term plan, up his minutes load in the playoffs into the 28-30 range, and have gas left in the tank to produce at a high level in May and June.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Grant Williams - Improve composure with officials. We’ll go with a non-statistical goal for Grant. By their own admission, one of the Celtics flaws during last year’s playoff run was a penchant for losing their composure with the officiating during key stretches of games and having that loss of composure leak into the quality of their play. While Grant is not the only Celtic guilty of rampant complaining, he is the easiest player to target to swing the Celtics towards being a more composed team emotionally.

The Celtics need a critical mass of players who have a next play, mature mindset. Currently, White, Horford, Rob, and Brogdon are all players who fit that bill. Engaging with the officials is not a major part of their DNA. Whether we like it or not, Tatum and Brown, as the Celtics stars, are going to have an on-going dialogue with officials as they work to receive the calls they need to be successful. Star-level players in today’s NBA constantly work the refs. Smart is Smart. He is the emotional heartbeat of the team, the reigning NBA DPOY, one of the most physical pound-for-pound players in the league, and a defensive technician that constantly walks the razor thin edge between foul and great defensive play. He is always going to have a dialogue with officials and has earned that right.

Then, there is Grant. He is the Celtics 8th man. He is whip-smart and team-oriented. It is time for him to mature and realize that, for him, the juice is not worth the squeeze when it comes to complaining to officials. Tatum and Brown need those free throw attempts. Smart needs that margin of physicality. Grant needs to be quiet.

Head coach Joe Mazzulla - Start experimenting with ball screen coverages for Steph Curry now. It may not be Steph. It could be Luka or Ja Morant. It could be Donovan Mitchell or Kyrie Irving in the ECF. But, at the end of the day, so many high-leverage games in the NBA are going to come down to an elite offensive talent receiving a high ball screen and going to work.

Defensively, do you switch? Do you trap? Do you hedge and recover? Do you drop and chase over the top? Every option has pros and cons and so much depends on the capabilities of your defensive personnel, but the preparation needs to start now. Game 7. Celtics are up 1 with 10 seconds left on the clock. Curry dribbles up the floor with Smart guarding him. Draymond Green sprints to set a high ball screen with Thompson, Poole, and Wiggins spacing the floor. What ball screen coverage are the Celtics in and why? Mazzulla should be going to sleep and waking up with that question on his mind every day for the next six months.

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