Through the first 20 games of their season, the Boston Celtics were the 27th-ranked offense in the league. Propped up by an elite defense, they were an absolutely average team on paper with a 10-10 record after a loss to Dallas on November 24th. Since that time, Boston is 15-6 with the best offense in the league. What’s changed?
“Our chemistry is a lot better now,” Jayson Tatum told CBS Sports. “We had a lot of expectations early this year, and we didn’t play as well as everybody expected. Nobody likes to lose. We had to figure some things out. The main thing is we’re really sharing the ball.”
Tatum’s right. Boston has gone from averaging 25 assists in November to 31 assists in January, and that number was as high as 35 assists a night until a letdown performance in Miami on Thursday, which we’ll get to. Some of the assist uptick is simply the result of making more shots, but shots are easier to make when the ball is moving and everyone is involved and in rhythm.
The NBA defines a “wide open” shot as the defender being more than six feet away from the shooter. Through their first 20 games, Boston was getting 24 of those shots per game, and making 40.9 percent of them, which ranked 20th league-wide. Over its last 21 games, Boston is still getting 24 wide-open shots per game, but now, even factoring in their cold shooting night in Miami, they’re making over 45 percent of them, including 42.4 percent of their 3-pointers, which ranks second in the league over that stretch.
These shooting improvements apply across the board. Boston is significantly up near the rim, in the mid-range, and from three over the last six or so weeks. Again, some of this is random. There is some truth to the old “make or miss league” adage. Teams go hot and cold just like players do. But over the long haul, if you have good shooters on your team, the difference between making and missing shots is less about randomness and more about the types of shots you’re getting, and in Boston’s case, how those shots are being generated.
Take Thursday night in Miami. Boston came out scorching hot, hitting six of its first seven shots, three of them being 3-pointers. But they were self-created for the most part. Marcus Morris hit a face-up three late in the shot clock after Miami had stymied a possession, Tatum came off a dribble-handoff and hit a contested three without the ball ever touching the paint, Morris pulled up for another in transition, Kyrie danced on his own for a couple mid-rangers.
There were passes made on a few of these possessions, but they weren’t the kinds of passes that actually puncture the defense. No aggressive drive and kicks. No purposeful ball reversals to get the defense rotating. They were more of your basic hand-to-hand as a matter of formality, a few taps and handoffs around the perimeter, like starting up the engine of a cold car but you haven’t actually gone anywhere. This is why coaches like Portland’s Terry Stotts don’t put a lot of stock in the total passes made stat, because it’s meaningful passes that count.
“Making all those shots at the start, they were great shots but we weren’t generating much into the paint, and we kept on shooting tough, long, contested shots without much real attack,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think that showed in that we only had seven assists at halftime.”
in other words, any type of shot can go in for a while. But only the right shots go in consistently. The Celtics have a lot of players capable of creating their own shot, so that’s always going to be a temptation, a kind of basketball devil on their shoulder. What’s turned their offense around is a collective resistance of that temptation. Thursday night was a good reminder. To be a great team, you have to play the right way all the time. If you don’t, it will eventually catch you. For Boston, better now than in May and June.
Jaylen Brown’s ongoing frustration
In keeping with the Celtics’ tale of two seasons, Brown has recovered nicely from a miserable start to the year, even though people still only seem to talk about him in struggling terms. Through the first 19 games of the season, Brown didn’t have a single 20-point game. He’s had six of them since, including three of his last five games heading into Miami. So he’s getting going. He’s getting a rhythm. He’s found his niche coming off the bench to a certain degree. Then boom, he plays 14 minutes (actually 13 minutes and some change) in Miami and gets four shots.
When guys talk about adjusting to new roles, it’s often hard to quantify what that means. So much of basketball is feel and comfort, not just with your own game but how it fits inside all the moving parts around you. It’s hard to explain. But when it comes down to simple minutes and opportunities, it’s easy to see how not knowing where your minutes and shots are going to come one game to the next can be frustrating.
“It’s part of being in the league, part of being a professional just to be ready when your name is called,” Brown told CBS Sports. “That’s it. I’ll do what the coaching staff asks of me, and I will continue to do that.”
This is the perfect thing to say, straight out of the PR handbook. And I’m not suggesting Brown doesn’t genuinely believe this or that he is unhappy in some kind of “play me or trade me” sense. I’m just saying the guy seems frustrated. When you talk to him, you hear it in his voice, you see it on his face, this has been a tough season for Brown, and it continues to be. Aside from Hayward, who is in a whole different situation trying to come back after a year off and a terrible injury, Brown has had the hardest go of these adjustments.
Marcus Smart has played his way into a starting role. Marcus Morris, who many felt would be a likely trade candidate, has been one of the Celtics’ three best players. Kyrie gets to come back after missing Boston’s entire playoff run and just reassume his place at the head of offense, which he should because he’s the best player. Tatum might not be having quite the season people expected after his monster rookie year, but it’s not for lack of opportunities. Brown is the one who’s lost a starting spot and had his minutes and shots trimmed, though not as dramatically as you might think based on the way it gets talked about.
Remember, this is a guy who was a budding All-Star last season. He was the best player for playoff stretches on a team that was one win from the NBA Finals. We have seen more glimpses of that player over these last six weeks, but it feels like any time some real momentum gets started for Brown, a game like Thursday in Miami happens. Brown’s last eight games:
- 12 shots
- 3 shots
- 15 shots
- 7 shots
- 15 shots
- 6 shots
- 12 shots
- 5 shots
That kind of game-to-game fluctuation in involvement is tough for anyone. Especially a young guy who was on the rise. Brown says he and everyone else knew sacrifice was going to be required of this Celtics team, from top to bottom, with all the capable players and only one ball and so many minutes to go around. Still, saying it and living it are different things.
Boston almost certainly wouldn’t trade Brown before a potential Anthony Davis deal arises, which couldn’t be until next summer for Boston without including Irving in the deal (it’s a CBA quirk). Don’t count anything out, but more than likely, Brown is just going to have to stay the course and find his game as best he can on a consistent basis because even if the role isn’t the same, the Celtics need him to get where they want to go this season.
Spurs shooting threes on their terms
One of the first teams to fully weaponize the 3-pointer as a core part of their offensive attack, the Spurs, rather ironically, are now the team bucking the trend by shooting fewer threes per game than anyone else in the league entering Thursday. Perhaps you could say they just like to be different — when the league is going one way, they go another. In reality, they don’t care which direction anyone is going. They’re going to play their way, according to their personnel. With this team — dominated by two mid-range masters, at least historically, in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge — that means a very selective 3-point approach.
On Thursday, Aldridge scored a career-high 56 points. He didn’t make a single 3-pointer. In a double-overtime game in which the Spurs scored 154 points, the team only shot 19 total threes. James Harden has bested or matched that mark twice this season by himself. The eye-popping thing is the Spurs made 16 of those 19 threes, including their first 14 to start the game. Though clearly an extreme night, this is in keeping with the Spurs’ blueprint — they take the fewest amount of 3-pointers in the league, but they make the highest percentage.
In a league where 3-point quantity rules the day — if you take a ton, you’re going to make enough to win the math war — the Spurs still believe in quality. Same goes for shots in the restricted area (five feet or less). Along with threes, everyone is gunning for shots at or near the rim. They want to take as many as possible. Except for the Spurs, who take fewer of these shots than any other team in the league but have the sixth highest percentage. Quality over quantity.
Where they put the two together, quality plus quantity, is in the paint — not a bunny at the rim, but not the long mid-range twos that are so analytically derided, either. They live in the in-between, in that 10-12 foot range, taking the second most paint attempts in the NBA at 17.3 a game, and converting them at the highest percentage in the league. This is their bread at butter, and they are eating well.
“It’s a perfect example of Pop’s greatness. Whatever he has, he’s going to play to those strengths,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra told CBS Sports earlier this season. “Whatever way the league is going, that’s not going to affect the way they play, they’re still going to play to their strengths. It’s brilliant coaching along with two highly skilled and decorated scorers (DeRozan and Aldridge] that can do it in that [mid-range] area arguably better than anybody else in the league.”
This last part, over the course of their careers, is true. DeRozan and Aldridge have become All-Stars via the mid-range, and they have stayed committed to it even as the perceived and legitimate statistical value of those shots has been dragged through the mud. That said, their numbers aren’t great this season in that area. Entering Friday, DeRozan is shooting just 39 percent from mid-range, the worst mark in the league among players who take at least five such shots a game. Aldridge, for this part, has the third-worst mark at 41.6 percent.
Still, San Antonio takes more mid-range shots than any team in the league and is sixth in percentage. That DeRozan is a good bet to tick back up toward his early season mid-range numbers, which were off the charts, only furthers the optimism around a team that, despite employing a supposedly inefficient style, owns the most efficient offense in the NBA since December 1st. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. And they’re not interested in anything else.
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