Up to this point, the Celtics have played some pretty good basketball. Currently, they are seeded 5th in the Eastern Conference — a spot worthy enough for a playoff bid — and have even inspired the hope that they will climb a few more spots as they play through the second half of this NBA season. The numbers behind the games seem to indicate this too. Right now, the Celtics are seventh in the league in point differential, behind the six teams who currently have the best six records in the league. Basically, when this team comes to play, they play very well. Unfortunately, there seem to be many nights that the Celtics just do not get the job done.
The Celtics have some capable shooters on their roster. Brad Stevens has done everything he can to get these shooters looks from the outside, and the Celtics are not afraid to let loose. Oftentimes this can demoralize opposing teams, but it can also be a blessing. The Celtics seem to be at their best when players like Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, and Evan Turner attack the basket. They can drive in and either create looks for themselves, or for their teammates waiting on the wings. Oftentimes these shots do not fall and the Celtics seem content with swinging the ball and taking errant shots from the three point line. This takes them out of their rhythm and kills a lot of the flow that makes this pace and space offense function.
The transition game is really this team’s bread and butter. They look to push the ball whenever possible, and the speed of the backcourt coupled with capable shooting from their bigs allows them to find great shots. When things are not going in the halfcourt, this team often makes up for it by escalating the pace, forcing turnovers and propelling the ball up the court.
The one knock on the Celtics coming into the season was that they just did not have the size to be a good defensive team. Fans have salivated at the prospect of finding that huge center to clog the middle and provide the shot blocking this team has lacked for a long while. Given the individual liabilities one would expect from players like Kelly Olynyk and Isaiah Thomas, this team seemed to be a recipe for defensive disaster. But that has yet to be the case.
Right now, the C’s are second in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, trailing only the Spurs. Crisp rotations and incredible energy fuel a typically small Boston lineup. They work hard, force turnovers, and contest every shot. Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Amir Johnson all have been huge on this end of the court, making fantastic plays every game. There are times when this team has lapses and gets picked apart, but they do a great job communicating and tend to recover quickly. Thomas is heading to his first All-Star game, and while his offensive prowess is what makes him a star, his defense has reached the point of passable (sometimes even good), making him a much more well-rounded player than we have seen in the past.
The Celtics are not a huge team and while this hasn't really hurt them when it comes to forcing misses, they do have a tendency to get beat up on the boards. When the team comes together and collectively rebounds, they do a great job. Marcus Smart very aggressively attacks the ball and Jae Crowder and Evan Turner provide great help on the wings. However, this team sometimes has a tendency to leak out after a shot is put up and this can be costly, giving the other team extra chances they shouldn’t be getting. When the energy and effort is there, this team is perfectly fine securing the ball and can even use its speed to get some offensive rebounds of its own. There have been a few games this season that second-chance points have caused a lot of unnecessary strain, but it’s usually never a nagging issue throughout entire games.
Celtics have lacked consistency up to this point in the season. Some nights they come out and absolutely impress. Other times, they are lackluster and lose to a team they are clearly capable of wiping the floor with. When the shots are not falling from the outside, they don’t seem to have a backup plan.
A lot of that makes sense. You do not want to stop playing your brand of basketball, but the Celtics have to find other ways to snap out of these funks if they want their record to reflect the work they have done. It can be maddening to see a flurry of threes fall one night only for it to rain bricks the next, but this happens to every team and it should not always determine the fate of the game. Working the ball down low and consistently attacking the basket will do them well in these games in the second half of the season.
On a brighter note, the energy and effort always seem to be there. Their defense always comes to play because they always scrap and fight. It’s really better decision-making in these situations, not necessarily effort, that would do them some good.
Close games have not been kind to the Celtics up to this point. When it comes down to the wire, the team has not been able to pull away or keep up with their opponents. It’s not because the energy and effort is not there. It’s not that they are not getting great looks. Shots just have not fallen for them. Outside of Isaiah Thomas, the team does not really have anyone to get them good isolation baskets at the end of the game. And as gifted as he is, sometimes your five-foot-nine point guard taking fadeaway mid-range jumpers just is not going to get the job done. To his credit, he hits them at a high enough rate for me to instinctively consider it a good look. When it gets close, the transition baskets and usefulness of rotations diminish, exposing the limitations of this roster. They can hunker down defensively, but that can only do so much if they are clunking shots on the other end. Brad Stevens has drawn up some terrific plays that have gotten them key, clutch baskets (most recently a game-winning layup by Jae Crowder against the Wizards) so the potential is there. It’s on the players to perform better in these intense situations. The coach can draw you up a look, but if you can’t hit the shot it’s not going to do you any good.
Brad Stevens has done an excellent job with his team once again. The Celtics have gotten better each season he has been here, and while the improved talent on the roster also contributes to that, he has no doubt gotten a bunch of average players to play collectively at an above-average level. The rotations that have made this team so great defensively are no doubt his doing. They run some great offensive sets after timeouts and at the end of games that have gotten them great looks, even if they do not always fall. The future only seems bright.