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Small sample size theater: the Celtics are 23rd in assists

Do Boston's low assist totals mean anything so early in the season?

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Think about what the prototypical Celtics play might be. Derrick White and Kristaps Porzingis initiate the offense with a pick-and-pop. White drives into the paint, draws both defenders, and kicks out to KP. The defense rotates and Porzingis hits Jaylen Brown cutting in the lane with a bounce pass. Brown collapses the defense even more and finds Jrue Holiday in the corner. The opposing team is scrambling now and Holiday finds Jayson tatum wide open for a 3.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

With so many talented players in the starting lineup, it feels like they should never take a bad shot. Ever. Through 54 minutes over three games, Boston boasts the third highest net rating of any five-man combination (with over 50 minutes played together) at 31.2. That’s certainly buoyed by a strong defense (90.5 defensive rating), but their offense is humming, too (121.7 offensive rating).

Throughout training camp and really, his entire coaching tenure with the Celtics, Joe Mazzulla has stressed making the right basketball play — whether you’re a star or a role player, if you draw two defenders, make the pass. With multiple All-NBA and All-Stars on your roster, that should be easy, but that really hasn’t been the case.

On average, the Celtics are 23rd in the league in assists per game (23) and 19th in potential assists (44.7). For a team so stacked with high end talent, those numbers don’t exactly instill confidence. Last season, the world champion Denver Nuggets were second in the league with nearly 29 assists per game; Boston was 7th at 26.7 a night.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe those starters are just so good that each player can take advantage of their mismatch.

In White’s 20-point explosion against Miami, only two of his buckets were assisted. He consistently broke down smaller defenders and muscled his way to the bucket and the free throw line. Against the Wizards, it was Brown bulldozing defenders and taking heat check threes at will. Who needs a pass when you can just take your defender all by yourself, right?

There has been steady improvement though. On Opening Night, they threw thirteen dimes with Brown and Tatum combining for nine. Against the Heat, Holiday dished out 7 of the starters’ 17. And on Monday night in DC, they totaled 19 with White being the high assist man with 8.

Obviously, it’s a small sample size and frankly, even if the picture was a bigger, assists don’t win championships. It’s really really early in the regular season and the team is still developing chemistry and learning each other’s tendencies. However, the team seems to be trending in the right direction — if that even is the right direction. Because the argument isn’t whether or not they’ve been good to start this campaign. The numbers don’t lie there. The argument is just how much better they can be in the long run.

Last season without Holiday and Porzingis, their second-ranked offense was second in catch-and-shoot points (37.5 per game) on 39.3% shooting (6th in the NBA). So far, they’re averaging just 29.5 points on 37% shooting. Improving those stats would mean getting easier shots for their stars and jumpstarting their second unit and role players.

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