Despite an underwhelming start to the 2021 NBA season, the Boston Celtics could certainly be in a worse position as the All-Star Break approaches this weekend.
They’re just half a game out of a top-four seed in a rejuvenated Eastern Conference.
They also boast two Eastern Conference All-Stars in forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both of whom are averaging 25 points per game heading into tonight’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers.
But there’s no denying the Celtics’ middling 17-17 record to this point is a far cry from the team’s expectation after falling just one game short of an NBA Finals berth last season.
According to a report from ESPN’s Tim Bontemps this morning, general manager Danny Ainge says the Celtics are still trying to find themselves at the halfway point of the season. “I feel like our group is pretty together,” Ainge said. “Guys are working hard still, and I feel like we don’t really know who this team is yet.”
For evidence of Ainge’s comments, look no further than the Celtics’ offense, which can go from explosive to maddeningly stagnant from possession to possession.
Even with Tatum and Brown averaging around 50 points per game combined, the Celtics rank just 15th in offensive efficiency according to ESPN insider Tom Hollinger’s team stats, scoring 109.2 points per 100 possession. That number puts them in the neighborhood of the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets, who are both fighting for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. It’s also well behind the Brooklyn Nets’ league-leading efficiency mark of 116.9.
The extended absence of Marcus Smart, the team’s best playmaker and leading assist man at 6.1 dimes a game, could have some bearing on the Celtics averaging the third-lowest assists per game (22.2). Furthermore, Boston needs more consistent play from Kemba Walker as he deals with lingering knee issues, though he’s now averaged 23 points over his last five games.
But a deeper dive into the Celtics’ numbers reveal a pattern of reliance on isolation basketball that currently has them on the barer side of “feast-or-famine.”
According to NBA.com, Boston resorts to isolation plays at the fifth-highest rate in the league (8.2%), with the Portland Trailblazers leading the league in iso frequency at 10.1%. That’s not out of the ordinary from past years, with the Celtics ranking in the top eight of this category since Jayson Tatum’s rookie season in 2017-2018.
The problem is that approach isn’t yielding points like it used to. Boston sits 23rd out of 30 teams in isolation points per possession (0.85), compared to being fifth-best in isolation PPP last season (0.96). The Celtics’ struggle to make shots in one-on-one situations makes the fact that they’re tied for the second-lowest assist percentage in the league that much more concerning.
The side effect of all those isolation shots has been having to contend with tighter defense.
NBA.com’s Shooting Dashboard labels 49.9% of the Celtics’ shots coming under at least “tight defense” (defender four feet away or closer), which is the seventh-highest percentage in the lead. For perspective, only two of the teams ahead of them on that list — the Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks — are currently playoff teams.
On top of that, Boston isn’t getting many looks close to the rim, ranking 24th in field goal attempts in the restricted area.
That lack of easy points at the rim has long plagued the Celtics’ offense, according to ESPN insider Zach Lowe.
“Piddling rim volume has dogged Boston almost the entire Brad Stevens era,” Lowe wrote last month. “The Celtics have had lots of players — including their three best scorers now — who are comfortable pulling long 2s. But Stevens, for better or worse, is not one of those coaches who builds from shot selection outward, or pushes his best players to avoid certain shots.”
Stevens’ philosophy of letting his scorers play their game has arguably allowed Tatum and Brown to become the All-Star scorers they are today and also yielded an offense last year that saw three players (Tatum, Brown, and Walker) average more than 20 points a game.
But this year’s offensive model is putting that mantra to the test and may require some tweaking to jumpstart the unit coming out of the break.
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