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The Battle of Timing: Figuring out how to get the Celtics back on track

The Celtics have a pretty rough month. The games are coming in heavy doses, the pesky injuries have started lurking, and practices have become something of a myth. The team is reeling, but thanks to a 16-game winning streak, they have a bit more room for error.

Pinpointing the Celtics issues are complex, but they work together as a nexus of events. First, the schedule. The team is in the mist of consecutive 3-games in 4-nights marathon and will be done more than half of their schedule by the time you watch the Big Apple drop. Next, you have the injuries, Morris hasn’t been right all year, Irving and Horford have each had to sit out, and the latest injury of Jaylen Brown has been linked directly to the overwhelming schedule. And finally, the cluttered schedule means no practices. This isn’t too uncommon, but, with the untimely injuries, and a super young roster, Stevens has been trying to mix and match a lot of different lineups with rookies, but also doesn’t have the ability to hold practices so they can actually get familiar with the roles in their lineups. It was very common to see second unit lineups where either Irving, Horford, or Tatum were the clear options to lead the unit but went possession after possession without touching the ball. The lack of ball movement, and comfortability with what roles are in lineups that aren’t the starting five is stuff that can be worked out in practice, something the Celtics are unable to do.

The good news is that the light of the end of the tunnel is near. The team will play 7 games in the next 13 days before their trip to London to play the Sixers. The London game will provide the team with 7 nights off with the game in between.

The goal is simple: maintain at least an average of level play until the stretch is over, and use the big breaks to rest, practice, and re-group for the second half of the season.

But when that break comes, the Celtics will still have their fair share of on-court things to figure out. Let’s take a look at how the team has performed since the streak was broken:

The Basics


107.6 offensive rating

10th in offensive rating

18th in passes made

8th in True shooting (57.3%)


106.6 defensive rating

17th in defense

7th in charges drawn

30th in defensive rebounding

Opp TOV% 14.2 (equivalent to 9th best TOV rate in league, they don’t force turnovers)

Net Rating by the Quarter

1st quarter: 14.8 net rating, 1st in NBA, 117 offensive rating, 102.2 defensive rating

Most used lineup: Irving, Brown, Tatum, Horford, Baynes: 39.2 net rating, 123.9 offensive rating, 84.7 defensive rating, 84% DRR, 50 AST%, 64.9 TS%

*Same lineup with Smart replacing Brown= -17.5 net rating

*Same lineup with Morris in for Baynes= -20.7 net rating

2nd quarter: -5.8 net rating, 23rd in NBA, 96.6 offensive rating, 102.5 defensive rating

Most used lineup: Smart, Rozier, Morris, Ojeleye, Theis: -1.9 net rating, 113.9 offensive rating, 115.7 defensive rating, 64.3 DRR, 49 TS%

*Closing lineup (averages about 2min in quarter)

Irving, Smart, Tatum, Brown, Horford: -17.4 net rating,

3rd quarter: -0.1 net rating, 20th in the NBA, 105.9 offensive rating, 106.1 defensive rating

Most used lineup: Irving, Brown, Tatum, Baynes, Horford: -17.1 net rating, 98.5 offensive rating, 115.7 defensive rating, *21.4 ast% (50 ast% in 1st), 49.3 TS%, 90 DRR%

*Same lineup with Smart in for Baynes: 61 net rating, 126 offensive rating, 65.1 defensive rating, Ast% 63.2, TS 66.4%, 85.7 DRR%

4th quarter: -4.6 net rating, 20th in the NBA, 111.2 offensive rating, 115.9 defensive rating

Most used lineup: Irving, Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford: -7.8 net rating, 118.5 offensive rating, 126.4 defensive rating, 57.1 DRR% (Worst defensive rebounding team in the 4th), Ast 68.2%, TS 61.4 %

Same lineup with Rozier in for Brown: 14.4 net rating, 106.1 offensive rating, 91.7 defensive rating, 36.4 AST%, 80 DRR%, 56.8 TS%

1st quarter shot chart vs. 4th quarter shot chart (defense)

1st quarter

358 FGA

27% of shots come from three (97 attempts)

44% of shots at the rim (teams are shooting 51.9%)

28% of shots long-two/mid-range

4th quarter

350 FGA

39% of shots come from three (137 attempts)

39% of shots come at the rim (137 attempts)

21% of shots are long-two/mid-range (76 attempts)

So that’s a lot of numbers, but there are specific things we can take from it. 
- Celtics defense starts off well and continuously gets worse throughout the game. Opponents are able to dramatically increase their three-point shot attempts and decrease the amount of mid-range/long-two attempts. 
- The same Celtics lineup that has led to them to the best net rating in the 1st quarter has a horrendous net rating in the 3rd, except when they replace Baynes with Smart in which their ast% goes up and their offense hits its best mark amongst all the most used lineups per quarter. 
- The Celtics are the worst defensive rebounding team in the 4th quarter, and they routinely have refused to play Baynes in the 4th or play him extremely low minutes when he does play. 
- This team has moments where it can score with the best of them or can’t defend to save their lives. Consistency has been an issue, and it starts as soon as they get away from the starting unit.

Ways to Improve

  1. More Baynes minutes?

Last 15 games Baynes has only played in six 4th quarters and only averaged 3.8minutes in those games. The Celtics have a 115 defensive rating in the 4th and only grab a measly 57.1% of their defensive rebounding. Baynes has the best defensive rating in the league and the team has a defensive rebounding rate that would be the best in the league when he’s on the court (82.7%) and the 25th ranked when he’s off the court (76.4%). Even if he doesn’t finish the games ultimately, the team should look into a way to incorporate him in lineups down the stretch to at least steady defense and help limit the opponents offensive possessions to one shot.

2. Getting the most out of Kyrie

Fun Fact: Al Horford shoots 26.3% from three when Irving isn’t on the floor, Tatum shoots 35.7%. When he’s on the court? Those numbers go up to 46.2% and 56.8% respectively.

Irving has been put in a weird position. He has been the only engine that makes the offense run, and Stevens has tried to spread him out across different lineups so that the C’s are able to score. In the last 15 games, Irving has averaged 27.6ppg, 4.6apg, while shooting 50.5% from the field, 43.7% from three, and 90.5% from the free throw line. The team’s offense drops to a 99 offensive rating when he’s off the court, only Al Horford’s is lower. The problem with these lineups is that he’s being paired with a lot of youth that aren’t offensive players, and he’s being used off-ball more. Here’s an example of what some of these 2nd unit lineups look like on the court:

With Horford, Irving is able to work a beautiful two-man game that forces teams to potentially defend a pick and roll, off-ball cuts, and a DHO in one play. But Irving is not Steph Curry. Simply having him on the court out by the perimeter isn’t going to be enough gravity to create openings for the non-offensive lineups he’s asked to carry. This leads us to the next point.

3. Get rid of the traditional 2nd unit

The Celtics have depth, but their depth is made up youth, and like most young players, they are at their best when on-court with stars who ease their burdens. Boston has started to figure this out a little bit and is experimenting with having guys like Horford, Tatum, and Irving mixing into the 2nd unit lineups. The results are still developing, but it is worth noting that via NBA Wowy, Horford on the floor without Irving or Smart has produced a 22.1 net rating with these as the top lineups:

First number is possessions, second number is average minutes

It’s limited, but this does suggest that maybe Al Horford is the star who should be tasked with keeping the 2nd unit afloat.

4. Carefully increase Jayson Tatum’s workload

Tatum takes 8.5 shots per game, 3.4 of them are three’s. 76% of those shots come on 0–2 dribbles. Via NBA.Com, he doesn’t even have enough shot attempts that they could classify as “very tight” contests and 88% of his threes are classified as open or wide open.

I’m here to tell you that’s not good enough.

In flashes, Tatum has already proven he can post-up, lead a break, attack mismatches, and take guys at his position off the dribble if need be. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a guy who should be getting more shot attempts than Marcus Smart.

But, with that being said, there are limits. Putting too much on Tatum at once could easily turn into him opting for long-two jumpers as opposed to his usual assaults on the rim and behind the arc due to added defensive attention. Tatum has been building good habits under Stevens due in part to a more controlled workload. Right now, the plan should be to feature him in 2nd unit lineups and get guys like Smart and Rozier to look for their offense in more spot-up situations as opposed to taking turns hogging up possessions without moving the ball from side-to-side. Working him through post-up possessions and dribble-handoffs will be good to get him attacking the basket. Then, as he gets his confidence up, the team should up his load in pick and roll situations where he’s already shown a propensity to find the rolling man, pull-up if given space, or score in the paint. At this stage, he may already be able to handle being the screen-setter in pick and roll situation. He has the ability to hit catch and shoot jumpers and attack closeouts when the defense over-commits, he could very easily become one of the better roll-men in his position because there isn’t a read from the play he can’t make. The potential is limitless for Jayson Tatum, but timing is still everything.

Boston has struggled mightily for the better part of the month, but some rest and makable adjustments can just as easily get them back on track. Sure, they aren’t the team that won 16 in a row, but so what? There’s only one team in the league capable of playing at that type of pace. Boston is, however, better than we could have hoped for after the Hayward injury, and they still have another reach. They just need to make it January.

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