The Celtics entered the season coming off an impressive Finals run and having added Malcolm Brogdon to an already deep, accomplished, in-their-prime core. After blistering the rest of the league to the tune of a 21-5 (.808) start to the season, the Celtics were rightfully anointed as legitimate high-end contenders to bring home this year’s Larry O’Brien trophy. For the first two months of the season, they looked like the best, most complete team in the league.
Since that time, the Celtics have gone 30-18, good for a .625 winning percentage. For reference, a .625 winning percentage for the entire season would still place them 6th behind Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Denver, Memphis, and Cleveland. They have not been bad since the hot start, but they certainly have not been consistently great for a while now. And expectations are sky high for a loaded roster in a title-starved city (hey, it has been five whole years since a Boston team won a title!) that demands greatness.
After the All-Star break, the Celtics have been particularly inconsistent, initially meandering their way to an uneven 7-6 record that included facepalm efforts like a loss to the defense-allergic Rockets and an inexplicable meltdown in blowing a 28-point lead to the Nets. Of course, as soon as people started to really worry about them, they stacked two inspired efforts in a row with their recent dismantling of the Kings and Pacers.
Taken all together, the trend line of the season from otherworldly start to several months of good but not great ball to the recent rollercoaster of inconsistency, has understandably left the fan base … anxious? Confused? Cautiously optimistic? Boldly pessimistic? Take your pick. It's different strokes for different folks in terms of how they feel about this team and project their fandom.
However, we can all agree that the Celtics need to find their top level of play more consistently if they want to make the playoff run that Celtics Nation is pining for and finish the long-awaited mission of raising Banner 18. In common parlance, the Celtics need to “flip the switch” at some point and regain their true form as an elite title contender. For what it’s worth, Vegas still believes in the Celtics’ capacity to do so as they currently have the Celtics with the 2nd best title odds.
When we talk about flipping the switch for a basketball team, what do we really mean? What does it look like? And how confident should we be that the Celtics can do the things they need to do to regain their top form?
Let’s briefly explore three ways each that the Celtics can flip the switch offensively, defensively, and in terms of coaching in the playoffs. After each section, I’ll share my confidence rating for how likely I think the Celtics are to attain championship-worthy habits in that area once the playoff starts. For this exercise, I’ll use a simple 1-5 rating scale where 5 is extremely confident and 1 is not confident at all.
Offense - Players
Playing with pace and sprinting in transition to increase fast break points and put pressure on the defense with early offense: When the Celtics were rolling at the beginning of the year, they played with some of the best offensive pace I can remember in my 30 years of following the team. They were routinely getting the ball up the court with intentionality, attacking in transition, or flowing into their offensive motion briskly and with purpose. They were even running off of made baskets, which is a true sign of a team invested in playing with pace. That dedication to pace, when paired with elite ball movement and some unsustainably scorching shooting percentages from 3-point land, meant the Celtics were operating at a historically efficient mark early in the season.
Since that time, the dedication to pace has waned as the season went on. Bad habits of walking the ball up the court and taking 10 seconds to get into the first offensive action have returned at times. To be fair, there are stretches and even full games (like the last two) where the Celtics play with electric pace, but they fluctuate like Boston weather.
Confidence Rating: 2 / 5
I have minimal confidence the Celtics will be able to consistently impose offensive pace on the opposition in the playoffs. It is simply not a part of their core identity at this point in time. The pace of play generally slows in the playoffs anyways as teams lock in on conversion defense and value the basketball with more urgency. The elite pace from the beginning of the season looks more like the outlier, and the inconsistent pace from the last several months seems more in line with what we have seen historically from this iteration of Celtics core players.
Attacking the rim with more urgency and settling for fewer poor three-point attempts: How many three pointers the Celtics should take and what constitutes a good attempt has been a hotly debated topic with the Celtics recent uneven play. Coach Joe Mazzulla has been staunchly locked in on his core belief that math wins out in the end and that a very high volume of three-point attempts is conducive to winning basketball in the modern era. It’s great when they go down at league average or higher rates, but the Celtics understandably struggle when they have poor shooting nights from long distance. In the smaller sample size of the playoffs, a couple of poor shooting games could swing a series away from the Celtics. While the three-pointer will certainly remain a massive part of the Celtics offensive system, they would benefit from trading some of the off-the-dribble contested threes that they settle for in the regular season for more rim attacks to score in the paint and get to the free throw line.
Confidence Rating: 4 / 5.
From a player perspective, I am quite confident the Celtics will ramp up the consistency of their rim attacks for the playoffs. In Tatum, Brown, Brogdon, White, and Smart, they have a host of players who can get downhill to the rim and are capable of finishing with physicality against playoff-level defense. For Tatum and Brown in particular (both of whom are shooting below league average from 3), some of their regular season shot selection is likely an intentional focus on saving their legs and bodies from the extra punishment that comes with attacking the rim relentlessly.
Greater emphasis on taking advantage of size mismatches in the post: While there are teams that have bigger “bigs” (4s and 5s) than the Celtics like the Bucks and Grizzlies, there is probably no team in the Association that has a bigger, stronger, more physical group of guards and wings than Tatum, Brown, Smart, Brogdon, and White. Consequently, the Celtics will almost always have at least one favorable size mismatch that they can target in the post if they so choose. It could be Marcus Smart posting up a slighter guard like a Darius Garland, Tatum going to work on the block against the smaller personnel that usually are deployed against him to check his perimeter game, or a host of other favorable matchups.
Confidence Rating: 3 / 5.
I expect the Celtics to take advantage of their guard and wing size mismatches at times. There are certain games when they come out with that mentality and utilize interior catches with more intentionality to stress the defense from the inside out. The playoffs allow for more opponent-specific gameplanning, and I expect the Celtics to find some matchups in the post that they target. I give this a 3 because, at the end of the day, their offensive identity is more tied to motion drive-and-kick actions that create open 3 point attempts rather than repeatedly exposing size mismatches on the post. And that is okay as long as they don’t forget that the post can be a dangerous weapon to supplement their offensive attack.
Defense - Players:
Sprinting in conversion and setting a half court defense consistently: This is an easy one. Sprinting back in conversion defense is one of the most important habits to have for a top defensive team. The only problem is it is not particularly “fun” for players, and it takes consistent energy and effort. When playing a worse team in Game 57 out of 82 on a Tuesday night in February, it can be tempting to jog back at times and hope you can outscore the other team. Obviously, that mindset doesn’t cut it in the playoffs when the margin for error is so slim and the stakes are so high.
Confidence Rating: 5 / 5.
I have complete confidence here. The Celtics are an experienced team that knows what it takes to make long playoff runs. They have risen to the occasion in the past with elite conversion defense and building a wall against the best players in the league (Giannis, etc.), and they will be ready to do so again this year.
Increased physicality and ball pressure defensively: This point is similar to the one above. Defensive ball pressure and physicality ultimately stems from consistent energy, effort, and commitment. It can be hard to maintain over the course of the regular season, but, if the Celtics want to achieve their goals, they need to rediscover their cutthroat defensive identity from the second half of the 2022 season.
Confidence Rating: 4 / 5.
I am confident that the Celtics defensive personnel will rise to the occasion in the playoffs and play with consistent energy and physicality. Their top-8 players are all plus defenders who have the size, speed, strength, and toughness to impact the ball on defense. There are two nagging questions that force me to score this area as a 4 instead of a 5. The first is, of course, Rob Williams’ health; at top form, he clearly moves the Celtics defense from good to great. The second is the Ime Udoka question. Udoka’s clear strength as a coach last year was infusing a toughness and tenacity into the team’s approach on the defensive end. They have not played with that same edge consistently this year. Are they saving it for the playoffs? Or, did it walk out the door with the last coach?
- Better focus and attention to detail on defensive glass: While many people equate defensive rebounding with physical toughness, I believe it is actually more tied to mental toughness and focus. The Celtics clearly have the personnel to rebound effectively when they are locked in on the mechanics of doing it effectively. However, they have a disturbing penchant for spacing out, missing assignments, and allowing free runners to the offensive glass, especially in key moments late in games.
Confidence Rating: 2 / 5.
While I don’t think defensive rebounding is something that will cause them to lose a whole series, I am worried that it will rear its ugly head late in key games. Outside of Marcus Smart and Derrick White at the guard spots and maybe Grant Williams, I would be hard pressed to name another Celtic that checks out and boxes out consistently in big moments. Horford, for all his strengths, is not a great rebounder. Rob relies on his athleticism. Tatum and Brown, for all of their talent, do not box out. File this away as something to keep an eye out for in big moments.
Tightening the rotation and utilizing the right personnel at the right time: In a way, rotation decisions get easier in the playoffs. Your best players are going to play a ton of minutes, and rotations usually shrink to 7 or 8 instead of 9 or 10. There are fewer decisions to make and fewer 5-man combinations to worry about. However, the decisions a coach does make are amplified in importance. The Celtics playoff rotation should be one of the clear strengths of the team as a top title contender. Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford, Rob, White, and Brogdon are all locked in. Those 7 will play and play a lot in the playoffs. They are all plus defenders with strong positional size and experienced playoff performers, an incredible luxury for Coach Mazzulla.
Confidence Rating: 4 / 5.
I am tempted to mark this category as a 5 on the confidence scale, but I have lingering questions about Grant William’s uneven play and role in the second half of the season. Grant should be the 8th man in the rotation and the 3rd big rotating in with Horford and Rob. Ultimately, I think he will fulfill that role and complete the Celtics desired 8-man playoff rotation. However, if he plays poorly or loses the trust of the coaching staff, that opens up the door for potential rotation problems with that 3rd big spot. Griffin, Kornet, and Muscala have all had their moments in the regular season, but I would feel far more comfortable if they were primarily spectators during the playoff run. Rob’s health concern rears its ugly head here as well. Any time he has to miss a game in the playoffs, that will create a trickle-down of imperfect rotation decisions for Coach Mazzulla.
Featuring offensive sets and actions that create high-quality looks to accentuate motion-based, 3-point-heavy offensive system: Similar to the player section on maximizing post mismatches above, Coach Mazzulla needs to push the right buttons when it comes to when, how frequently, and for whom to call set plays and actions. Playoff defenses lock in on the offensive tendencies of both personnel and scheme, so it is imperative that the coaching staff can manufacture some quality interior touches and looks through creative on-and-off-ball screening actions.
Confidence Rating: 2 / 5.
While I appreciate Coach Mazzulla’s consistency in his dedication to analytics and the power of the 3 point shot, some of his post-game remarks come off as too laissez faire in terms of living with the vagaries of game-by-game shooting percentages. Again, a playoff series is a small sample size. Coach Mazzulla will need to be willing and flexible to deviate from his preferred offensive approach at times if circumstances dictate it.
Matchup-dependent high ball screen coverage designed to limit opposing personnel: In the playoffs, teams will identify and hammer home what works over and over again. They will target mismatches and defensive weaknesses with far more ruthlessness than in the regular season. Consequently, many key possessions will come down to an elite ball handler trying to bring the weakest defender on the court into a high ball screen action. To win a championship, the Celtics will need to go through some of the elite scoring guards in the league, whether that be Donovan Mitchell or James Harden in the East or someone like Steph Curry or Devin Booker in an eventual Finals series. Coaching is key in these moments to identify the most appropriate ball screen coverage and defensive personnel to limit these otherworldly offensive talents as much as possible.
Confidence Rating: 3 / 5.
Consider this ranking of 3 a stand-in for To Be Determined. Playoff ball screen coverage and strategy is simply a different beast than the regular season, and we don’t have enough data one way or another to speculate on how Coach Mazzulla will handle it.
Overall, how confident are you in the Celtics’ ability to elevate their game in the playoffs and consistently play at the level necessary to push for a championship? What area most concerns you as they navigate the challenging series to come?