The Celtics added their 11th tally to the win column Monday, leaving New Orleans with a 124-107 victory over the much-discussed Anthony Davis and the Pelicans. The night was a satisfying reprieve from a frustrating stretch of losses that has perplexed both the team and NBA analysts.
Here are four things that went right:
Three-point shooting: Against the Pelicans, Boston’s three-point shooting percentage was a season-best (48.7). Entering Monday’s game, the Celtics ranked 21st in three-point shooting percentage, which is problematic for a team that hoists an average of 35.9 shots — only the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks attempt more — from behind the arc per game.
When the three-ball is falling, however, Boston’s offense is at its most efficient. The Celtics are 4-1 this season when they make over 40 percent of their shots from three-point range, with their only loss coming at the hands of a game-winning 27-footer from Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo. Their offensive rating jumps to 111.5, up from their 26th-ranked season mark of 105.5.
Only three of the Celtics’ 19 three-pointers Monday were unassisted, which suggests the large majority of their shots (85 percent) were generated by effective ball movement. Against New Orleans, Boston made 347 passes, up from its season average of 283.4. When they make over 40 percent of their shots from downtown, the Celtics are averaging 311.4 passes per game.
Steals: The Celtics were active in forcing 22 turnovers from the Pelicans, cashing in on their opponent’s poor decision-making for 32 points. Boston notched a season-high 14 steals, including five from point guard Kyrie Irving. Though New Orleans is near the top of the league in steals allowed (9.0 per game), inducing “live ball” turnovers is nonetheless always encouraging.
Marcus Smart as a starter: Coach Brad Stevens continued to tweak his rotations — something he said he won’t be settled on “until forever” — inserting Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris into the lineup to join Irving, Al Horford, and Jayson Tatum.
“I wanted to see what that would look like with Marcus [Smart] in the starting lineup,” said Stevens, who praised Smart’s “level of grit.”
That grouping now has a 25.2 net rating over 52 minutes played this season, which ranks sixth among the NBA’s 76 lineups posting at least 50 minutes. With forward Jaylen Brown’s lower back injury not expected to be long-term, Stevens will have an interesting decision to make when the 22-year-old is able to return.
Monday’s lineup is by no means an automatic solution to the “50,000 issues” Stevens called out Wednesday, but its potency at least merits a consideration of being used more frequently in the future.
Smart logged a season-high 40 minutes against the Pelicans, which is the most any Celtic has played in a non-overtime game this year. His stat line (8 points on 3-for-8 shooting, 5 assists, and 2 rebounds) was, per usual, underwhelming, but Smart’s physicality brought a much-needed defensive mindset to the game. The 24-year-old, who was responsible for causing nearly all of the Pelicans’ eight first-quarter turnovers, embodied the personality and toughness that Stevens noted has been missing throughout the team’s uninspiring start.
“There’s a reason why we signed him back,” added Irving after the game. “Defensively and offensively, I feel like he brings our numbers up — and I’m appreciative of that.”
When Smart plays 27 or more minutes per game, the Celtics are 4-1. When he plays 22 or fewer, they are 2-4. Having him on the floor also increases Boston’s net rating, even if his individual numbers aren’t lighting up the box score.
Pace: Scoring 18 fast-break points Monday, Boston was not overmatched by the uptempo Pelicans. Though the Celtics have one of the slower paces in the league — they are “not a running team,” as coach Alvin Gentry mentioned after the game —they picked things up at the Smoothie King Center, firing 97 shot attempts. Whether the intensified pace was in response to that of New Orleans or a concerted effort is difficult to discern, but the Celtics certainly played with more purpose. Although the speed of the game did produce some sloppiness, the accompanying attack mentality seemed to pay off.