How the Celtics look every bit like the team they were supposed to be last season
This Boston offense is crammed with unselfish playmakers who can create their own shot
After losing on opening night to the 76ers, the Boston Celtics have rattled off six straight wins and are atop the Eastern Conference. Entering Friday, their 6-1 record is tied with the Lakers for the best mark in the league, and their 7.7 net rating ranks third behind the Lakers and the Bucks.
With the obligatory caveat that it's still super early, the Celtics look for real. The prevailing sentiment is that they're one piece away from legit contention, but I'm not so sure about that. They might be a sleeper to win the East as they stand. Nobody in the conference is without a hole.
At the very least, we can pretty safely say that to this point the Celtics look every bit like the team they were supposed to be last season. Great defensively. Chock full of talented scorers and playmakers. Versatile on both ends.
After stalling last season, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are back on an All-Star track. Gordon Hayward looks pretty darn close to his old self. Kemba Walker is Kyrie Irving with a thousand-watt smile, which has melted away the depressing, cloudy disposition that hung over this team last season. The Celtics are fun again. It feels like the 2018 playoffs all over.
Yes, Al Horford is gone, and indeed the piece most people feel the Celtics are ultimately missing is a defensive big, preferably one with floor-stretching capabilities. But Boston is still the No. 3 defense entering Friday, and should they opt for a deadline deal, they certainly have the assets. That 2020 Memphis pick remains a highly coveted asset. Steven Adams would be awesome in green. So would Kevin Love. If you want to think smaller but still potentially really impactful in all the right areas, Tristan Thompson could be a buyout option.
For a time, and because of his injury, Hayward could have been viewed as the salary filler in an asset-driven deal for a big-time player. Any scenario where Hayward gets dealt seems unlikely these days. He's moving fluidly again, finally. He's averaging over 20 points on an eye-popping 56-percent shooting, including 44 percent from deep and 84 percent from the line. The Celtics are plus-7.3 when he's on the floor, which is right about what Jimmy Butler is doing for the Heat.
The Celtics, in fact, are the only team in the league with three players averaging at least 20 points, with Tatum at 21.6 and Walker at 26 a night being the other two. Brown is no slouch at 16 a game on 51-percent shooting. Tatum is making over 45 percent of his 3-pointers. Still, somehow, Boston's overall offensive ledger paints what could be a concerning picture.
- Offensive rating: 15th
- Points per game: 17th
- Shooting percentage: 21st
- 3-point percentage: 17th
- Effective field-goal percentage: 22nd
- Free-throw percentage: 17th
- Assists per game: 20th
- Pace: 18th
This is not the look of a good offensive team, and yet the Celtics feel like a good offensive team because they have such gifted one-on-one players who create for themselves, especially from deep. It's something this team relies heavily on. The following Tatum sequence perfectly encapsulates what is carrying this Celtics team so far.
That's a great defensive play on one end and a self-created 3-pointer on the other. It's a perfect snapshot of this season's Celtics, who have the second-highest percentage of unassisted 3-pointers in the league behind Portland.
The difference is: The Blazers have two guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum who do the bulk of their one-on-one creating, while the Celtics have at least four guys in Walker, Tatum, Hayward and Brown, and you can even throw Marcus Smart in that mix. Walker is blindingly fast with the tightest of handles, and his pull-up game, particularly out of pick-and-roll actions, is deadly. But it's Tatum, in just his third season, who is starting to look like one of the smoothest scorers in the league. Check out Tatum's reel below and look how many of these shots he's creating on his own.
As great as Tatum is becoming as an individual scorer, you wonder how long this kind of offense can keep up. If Tatum and Hayward regress as 3-point shooters even a little bit, the Celtics don't have a lot to fall back on offensively. Again, they don't get to the free-throw line much, and when they do, they convert at a below-average rate. They are a bottom-third team in fast-break points. They are 23rd in offensive-rebounding percentage. These are all ways that good offensive teams keep themselves afloat when the shots aren't going in.
That said, the Celtics are looking pretty well built for the playoffs, where it becomes a game of possessions and one-on-one creators take on a disproportionate importance. In the playoffs, you can often throw out a lot of the big-picture efficiency measurements. You just needs guys who can get you buckets. The Celtics have more of those guys than most teams, and they have a small lineup that can cause fits on both ends. Smart might be the early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
On some level, you might look at the way the Celtics play offense and conclude they haven't changed much from the Kyrie days. They still aren't a big passing team. Kemba is about as close to a basketball clone of Kyrie as there is in the NBA -- a high-usage point guard creating a ton of one-on-one offense. Their long mind-range shot attempts are down almost five percent, but just about every other part of their collective shot chart looks pretty similar to last season.
But it just feels different. The renewed spirit of this team reframes its similar functions. These guys aren't hunting their own offense because they're unsure of their place in the system or because they're fighting for their touches. They're not searching for anything, collectively or personally. They look like a team that knows what it is, a team composed of guys who know who they are, and everyone is empowered to pursue the true heights of their talent.
When that happens, when a player knows he doesn't have to worry about his involvement from game to game, even possession to possession, it's amazing how easy it is to start playing for the team. Even if Boston employs a largely individualistic offense, they do it together, like a baseball team on the top step of the dugout in support of the guy at the plate. I adore this action from Walker and Tatum on Thursday night against Charlotte:
Two things about that action. One, that is a tough shot. If Tatum is going to start hitting shots like that on a consistent basis, we may actually be underselling his potential. But the second component of this play that I love is the context. This was Walker's first game back in Charlotte, and. This was his night, and this play came with the clock winding down at the end of the third quarter -- perfect time for a hero shot at the buzzer.
Instead, Walker gives the ball to Tatum. He's not worried about his moment. That's what I mean when I say you can tell these guys are in this together. And when you have the kind of talent the Celtics do, that kind of togetherness can go a long way. Perhaps much farther than anyone expected this year's Celtics could go.
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