Joe Mazzulla talks about margins more than my 9th grade English teacher. Much like Ms. Smith, Joe is worried about undue benefits from fudging the margins. In the case of the Celtics, they let Atlanta get away with fudging the margins in Games 3 through 6, and it almost led to a surprise Game 7.
By “margins,” Joe is really talking about valuing possession. The two biggest ways to lose the possession game? Give up offensive rebounds and lose the turnover battle. The Hawks destroyed the Celtics on the glass, which frankly might be underselling it, but the turnover battle was a push. The Celtics should have an easier time with both in the upcoming series against Philadelphia.
The Cs are about to embark on a journey that will pit them against a team built much differently than the Hawks, but they do possess similarities. While one team is led by one of the smallest stars in the league and the other by one of the biggest, Philly and Atlanta both like to play in the halfcourt and have lead guards that are painfully unlikeable. But that’s not what we will be exploring today. Instead, we’ll be breaking down two important places where Philly and Atlanta differ as we seek out the field for the battle on the margins. First, we will explore the delicate balance between getting back on defense and attacking the offensive glass, and second, the tide-turning turnover battle.
The offensive rebound transition defense matrix
If you’re anything like me, you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with visions of Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu tipping in another Trae Young miss for two. In other words, the Atlanta Hawks crash the glass with reckless abandon, singularly focused on ensuring they leave the possession with points. On first glance, the numbers don’t really look that way. The Hawks finished the regular season 11th in offensive rebound percentage. But, if we dig a little deeper and only look at the portion of the season the Hawks were coached by Joaquin Phoenix’s part-time serial killer cousin, Quin Snyder, things change. Since Snyder took over in early February, the Hawks were 2nd in the NBA in both offensive rebounding percentage and offensive rebounds per game, behind only the mighty Houston Rockets.
As a fan of the opposing team, watching the Hawks come up with a dozen offensive rebounds a game felt like a powerful antidote to the Celtics’ defense. So what if they can force misses? Someone will clean up the trash anyway. In some ways that’s true but crashing the glass that aggressively isn’t without its downsides, specifically, defending in transition. If you don’t get the offensive rebound, your transition defense is severely compromised, and that goes double for a team that asks Trae Young to be active in transition defense.
It should come as little surprise then that the Celtics are a healthy 5th in fast break points per game in the playoffs and 5th in number of transition opportunities. While they sit at a mediocre 8th in points per transition opportunity, the volume was enough, on balance, to punish the Hawks aggressive style. Boston regularly attacked in full transition and semi-transition by taking advantage of the crossmatches that occurred due to Atlanta’s aggressiveness on the offensive glass.
The same cannot be said about the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers. Despite employing a man that is the size of two large adults dressed in a Joel Embiid costume, they simply do not prioritize the offensive glass. The Sixers were 27th in offensive rebounds per game and 25th in offensive rebound percentage. The problem with employing a man that large that doesn’t attack the offensive glass? You are still vulnerable in transition. It also doesn’t help when one of your guards is James Harden.
The Sixers gave up the 3rd most fastbreak points in the league and were 6th worst in defensive points per transition opportunity. So, unlike the Hawks, who were exposable in transition because they attack the glass, the Sixers simply have a personnel problem. I wonder if you see the Sixers be more aggressive on the offensive glass in this series since they will be conceding in transition regardless. You might as well lean into the weakness and try to derive some benefit from getting killed in transition.
Regardless, expect the Celtics to continue to push the pace against the Sixers. Not only is it likely to be effective, but it also provides the benefit of wearing out Embiid, which may be critical to a series win.
The turnover battle
The Hawks were excellent at limiting turnovers in the regular season (3rd best in the league) while the Celtics were terrible at forcing them (26th!). The flip side still favored the Hawks, albeit less so. The Celtics were good at protecting the ball, clocking in at 7th best, while the Hawks were middling at forcing them, 16th. This was an area where the Hawks could have, and probably should have, had an advantage. Protecting the ball and forcing turnovers is the recipe for plucky underdog success.
Well, in what is a somewhat bizarre coincidence, the Hawks and Celtics fought the turnover battle to a draw. Literally. They averaged the exact same number of turnovers, 12.8. The tenacious turnover tussle for supremacy in a playoff series became the Battle of the Ironclads.
It should come as no surprise to Celtics fans that they won a series where the turnover battle was even. Every dropped game in last year’s playoff run was the result of turnovers, either quantity or quality (e.g. at the end of the game or live ball). Not losing the turnover battle is as good as winning it for these Celtics.
Which brings us to Philly, who was much worse than Atlanta at protecting the basketball in the regular season, 13th fewest turnovers, while also not being all that great at forcing them, 14th. If the Celtics’ and Sixers’ turnover profiles were a dating show, it would be Mediocre Matchmaker.
One thing is for certain though, the Celtics showed they could protect the ball against Atlanta and force enough turnovers to offset their own. They are now set to face a team that protects the ball worse than the Hawks and is similarly average at forcing them. The aggressive flurry of double teams has, at times, flummoxed Joel Embiid and forced him into turnovers; expect to see a lot more of that in the playoffs than we saw in the regular season. If you believe this Celtics team, and especially the defense, can flip the switch for the playoffs, winning the turnover battle would be a good place to put the wall plate.
The Celtics had enough talent to beat the Hawks despite losing the offensive glass and playing them to a turnover draw. It’s very possible they have enough talent to do the same to the Sixers, but if they can dominate the Sixers on the margins: clean the defensive glass, protect the ball, and turn them over, it might just be a short series.