Boston Celtics Top Five Strengths
After multiple injuries and inconsistent play to start out the season, the Boston Celtics entered the new year appearing to finally bring things together. Still not where they want to be on the court, holding the three seed with the Raptors still in reach is a place they can be happy with, and the first half of the season has given them a lot of positives to build on.
Surprisingly, The Celtics have flipped the script a bit with their offense and defense. While the defense suffered tremendously with their injuries, the offense has continually been vastly improved from a season ago. The defense continues to improve and with a five man lineup that can feature Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Avery Bradley, they will continue to have confidence in their ability to win games with defense, even if the numbers aren’t quite stacking up to where they were a season ago.
On offense, however, they are improved across the board, and are functioning at an all time high. They are not only improved in almost every single area, they have separated themselves as the premier team in some of the most important areas.
No one on the team is satisfied and they will continue to improve on both ends of the court, but here are the five biggest strengths for the Celtics so far this season.
#5 Field Goal Differential
Last season, the Celtics used volume of opportunities to make up for any offensive shortcomings. This season, they have slowed things down and have focused a lot more on the quality of the opportunity, rather than the quantity of opportunities. That being said, the Celtics still struggle to shoot the ball and will often need more opportunities than their opponents if they want to keep up on offense.
So far this season, despite the decline in pace, steals and offensive rebounds, the Celtics have a solid field goal differential of +1.3, which puts them in the top 10 in the league. The reason this statistic may be a bit surprising, and is a testament to how improved the Celtics are on offense, is rebounding.
The Celtics continually throw away opportunities with their poor rebounding, and opponents almost always get an edge with their offensive rebounding. The Celtics have made it difficult for themselves to maintain this positive differential, and yet it continues to be a strength.
The Celtics are an improved shooting team, but middle of the pack will not be enough to overcome the best in the league. It is not as important as last year, but finding ways to get those additional opportunities will be a defining quality of this Celtics team.
The Celtics are also able to do more with those extra opportunities this season. They use their ball movement and, more importantly, their ball protection to ensure that while they are getting an edge in volume of opportunities, they are no longer sacrificing the quality of opportunities like they did a season ago.
#4 Bench Scoring
The Celtics still have not seen their second unit have the same kind of impact as they did last year, but that is understandable considering the loss of Evan Turner. The second unit looked weak and exposed when Smart and Kelly Olynyk were injuried, but they are starting to come together.
They are lead by Smart, but always need to use multiple players and a deep roster in order to get that edge. Right now, the Celtics have overcome those early struggles and have the eight highest scoring bench in the NBA. Taking into account that second year player Terry Rozier and rookie Jaylen Brown have been responsible for much of that production, and their second unit success is one of the more remarkable aspects of the season.
Stevens has never given his starters the same kind of minutes as many teams in the league. He always uses his bench and always gets creative with lineups. Without that second unit scoring, Stevens loses one of the biggest ways he has seen success this season.
The better news for the Celtics is that the second unit should also continue to improve. On top of the fact that so many young players have so much responsibility, they still have not settled into a consistent rotation, and are yet to see Olynyk return to his stellar form from a season ago.
The Celtics should have no problem remaining in the top 10 in bench scoring, and they are in a phenomenal position to have the fastest growing bench in the NBA this season. It may not be as strong as last season, but the second unit continues to be one of keys to success for the Celtics.
#3 Offensive Balance
While Isaiah Thomas has separated himself as the unquestioned offensive leader and instigator on the Celtics, they continue to do everything as a team. With an identity that is now tied to ball movement and ball protection, the Celtics are seeing their entire team buy into it, giving them one of the most balanced attacks in the league.
The Celtics have the third most assists in the NBA, and yet they do not have a single player that ranks in the top 15 in assists per game. Having a center that leads the league for his position helps, but the Celtics have a lineup full of willing passers that are always looking to make the better play.
Thomas leads the way with his 6.1 assists per game, followed by both Horford and Smart who are above four assists per game. After that there are five different players who average out above two assists per game. None of these guys are putting up gaudy numbers, and that is the point.
The Celtics move the ball as a team and after spending years with Rondo leading the league in assists for the Celtics, it is a completely new look to have a top assist team without having a pass first point guard, or any one player who is constantly setting everyone up by himself. The Celtics move the ball as a team, and the result is great balance in their assist totals
Thomas is setting the tone and the key has always been balance. The Celtics never want to lose their aggressiveness and they never want to see players passing up open looks. For the Celtics, it is not enough for one player to have that mentality. In order for their offense to be at its best it is essential that every player in the lineup has that same mentality, allowing them to have one of the most balanced attacks in the league, where any player on the court will be contributing to the offensive rhythm.
#2 Ball Protection
The Celtics currently hold the third worst turnover differential in the NBA at -2.5, which feels like an anomaly considering they are turning the ball over just 11.6 times per game, fifth best in the NBA. The Celtics are not generating the turnovers the way there were last season, but their ability to protect the ball on offense is the biggest reason why they have the best assist to turnover ratio in the NBA.
Thomas started this trend last season as the only player to score more than 22 points per game, have more than six assists per game, while turning it over no more than 2.7 times per game. Thomas was one of the most aggressive players in the league, but no one else managed to pair aggressiveness with ball protection the way he did.
This season, everyone else is following suit. Horford leads centers in assist to turnover ratio, and everyone else on the team is following the two tone setters. The biggest reason the Celtics have that positive field goal differential is because of the way they protect the ball.
The Celtics have done a lot to improve the quality of their opportunities, and it helps tremendously that they are throwing away fewer and fewer of those opportunities. The Celtics are proving that that can impose their offense on others and as long as they keep protecting the ball, they will continue to get in rhythm and get the quality looks that have lead to their success.
#1 Ball Movement
The other side of that league leading assist to turnover ratio is the best part of this Celtics team so far this season. The balance was already discussed because every single player on this team realizes that ball movement has been the key to their success.
Thomas has continued to be the one player on the team that can go out and manufacture points by himself, but that will never be enough for a top offense. The Celtics realize how important their offensive rhythm is, and all their offensive improvement this season has been tied to their ball movement.
The Celtics have no players that are scared to shoot and that gives the distributors all kinds of options when it comes to who they are passing to. It is not an issue of the Celtics being a pass first team because, for a large part, they are a shoot first team. The Celtics are focused on the quality of the opportunities and with the way they have bought into the ball movement, the Celtics are forcing nothing.
The Celtics were bottom dwellers a season ago and now they are right in the middle of the pack when it comes to shooting. Without the players that can create shots for themselves, the Celtics have a full lineup that is always looking to create for each other. Everything comes together for this team when they are playing as a unit and that means giving everyone the necessary touches, forcing nothing, and capitalizing on any good opportunity created by that movement.
The Celtics have an opportunity to continue to grow as an offense and as long as they continue to move the ball the way they have this season, they will have no problem scoring and maintaing a surprising top 10 offensive efficiency.