Post-game Reactions

Before the Bulls-Celtics series, Matt “Kevin” McHale of By the Horns asked me why the Celtics had been scoring about four points more per game and shooting better without Kevin Garnett in the line-up. I answered that I suspected it was random statistical noise, and that it could not be possible that Boston’s offense functioned better without one of the great mid-range shooters in the NBA’s history–and one of its best big man passers. 

But I wanted to investigate further, so I looked at the 22 regular season games KG missed after hurting his knee in Utah on Feb. 19. Here’s what I found:

                                          Overall Regular Season                                        KG-less

Offensive Efficiency                 110.5                                                     114.9

Two-point FGs                        51% (60.7 attempts/g)                          51% (60.3 attempts/g)

Three-point FGs                     39.7% (16.5 attempts/g)                        43.2% (17.0 attempts/g)

FTAs/game                               25.3                                                         25

That 114.9 offensive efficiency (2,261 points on about 1,967 possessions) would have led the entire NBA this season, and the C’s accomplished it without playing at a faster pace; the team averaged about 90 possessions per game in KG’s absence, about the same as their overall mark. Only five teams have put up higher season-long offensive ratings than 114.9 since 1980, the most recent being the ’95-96 Bulls, who were sort of a decent team. 

But as you can see, the offensive improvement was fueled entirely by a ridiculously accurate stretch of three-point shooting. That accuracy rate is unsustainable over a full season. No team has ever hit 43 percent of its three-pointers over 82 games, and only seven have cracked the 40 percent barrier since the league instituted the three-point shot in 1979-80, according to Basketball Reference

Side note: I encourage you to click on that link. Two things I learned from that data sort: 

1) The ’97 Charlotte Hornets were by far the most accurate three-point shooting team of all-time. They hit 42.8 percent of their threes, led by Glen Rice (an insane 47 percent) and Dell Curry (43 percent). No team is within two percentage points of them.

2) This season’s Celtics were actually the 12th-best three-point shooting team in NBA history, going by shooting percentage only. 

Let’s get back to ’08-09 and look at how each of the Celtics best three-point shooters changed their games when KG was out.

                                           3’s  With KG                                                  3’s  w/o KG

Ray Allen:                      40%, 6.1 attempts/g                                        42%, 7.2 attempts/g

Paul Pierce:                   39%, 3.5 attempts/g                                         39%, 4.4 attempts/g

Eddie House:                 42%, 4.2 attempts/g                                         50%, 4.3 attempts/g

So each of the C’s main three-point shooters attempted more threes without KG and either made them at their normal rate (Pierce), improved slightly (Allen) or went off-the-charts insane (House). 

It probably helped that those 22 games included nine against teams in the NBA’s bottom 10 in opponents’ three-point shooting percentage, including seven combined against Miami, New Jersey, Phoenix and Washington, the 2nd-5th worst teams in the league at guarding the three (at least in terms of opponents’ percentage). In those eight games, the C’s shot 57-of-116 from deep–49 percent. 

Obviously this could not last, and it didn’t. Details after the jump.

Actually, as I’ve noted before, it did last through the Bulls series, when the Celtics nearly maintained their excellent regular-season offensive efficiency rating by hitting 42 percent of three-pointers. But then they ran into the league’s best defense, and their offense fell apart. They hit only 29 percent of their threes, and their offensive rating dropped to 104–a tad worse than what the Bobcats (27th in offensive efficiency) did over the full season.

Unless someone can come up with a convincing explanation for why Kevin Garnett’s absence would lead to improved three-point shooting, I’m sticking by my conclusion that this 22-game improvement in offensive efficiency was indeed just a random statistical blip. Ray Allen got hot, Eddie House got hotter and the C’s faced a string of teams that did not guard the three well. 

I’d be interested to hear other explanations if people have them, though.

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Zach Lowe

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  • A statistical blip is the most likely explanation but, were there any evidence that the Celtics made a conscious effort to minimize Garnett's offensive absence by re-distributing as many of his two-point jump shots to slightly longer jump shots for their best three-point shooters, that would be to everyone's credit.

    Even if the motivation was subconscious it shows a fundamental understanding of how offenses function though arriving at the conclusion that Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and (to a lesser extent) Eddie House are good offensive players isn't the most strenuous journey.

  • I may be totally off base on this one but Eddie House had the most drastic increase. He rose 8 percentage points. That def drastically improved the teams percentage.

    House seemed to get very hot when Marbury joined the team and the second unit had a legitimate ball handler to distribute to Eddie who was free to spot up… Agree?

  • Jason J

    i think your explanation makes sense, but i mean it could be as simple as replacing your second option with the best 3 point shooter in the league. did they just start running more sets for ray allen? no high post passing maven might make rivers more inclined to call staggered screens for ray. or how about that high pick and pop btwn pierce and house that they love? is that a more attractive play when you're down one inside option?

    if you run more sets for 3s (particularly against teams that don't defend them well), it's not a big stretch to think that 3 point shooting will get better. also scalabrine started in place of kg for a while there, and he's another knock down three point shooter.

  • Big Boards

    Like the man said the big reason is that without KG they called more plays with the baseline double screen for Ray and House. Note that Pierce still hit the same number and just jacked up more shots. Also BBD and Rondo became decent at setting picks (Perk still moves almost EVERY time) with the repetition. Finally, house cant D the 2 spot but he can shoot it, and his weakness is not uncovered against the worse teams so he could get the minutes to develop a rhythm.

  • C'mon, Zach. We need some "They Celtics are better without KG" controversy to get us through the summer.

    While I agree with your assessment in principle, can it really be said that 22 games is a "statistcal blip"? That's a full quarter of the season. To me, five games or so would be a blip.

    I'm not saying that the C's could have sustained that shooting long-term. Only that using the term "blip" seems to indicate something inexplicable. Guys just "got hot." That seems to minimize the "rally behind the season" spirit that infused the Celtics during that KG-less period. They were playing really inspired basketball in the face of some rather grim circumstances. Plus, Eddie was also playing for a contract.

  • Good points, all. I'm sure the coaching staff made a decision to emphasize the shooters once KG went down, though it does appear they played some crappy defenses in that stretch.

    @Matt: Clearly, my controversy-generation skills are weak. We don't all have fake doctors attacking us on our Web sites!

  • Tom E

    Ray shooting an extra 2% over his season average for those 22 games means he made four more threes than would be projected over that span, and same goes for House (despite his higher increase, he had many fewer attempts). Not that these numbers are statistically insignificant, but each could just be the product of one great night shooting from each.

  • I'm a huge Celtics fan in this Red Sox-loving town. Anyway, look at the numbers Big Al is putting up in Minnesota. Garnett doesn't even come close. In the long run we will suffer for giving up Jefferson, but what is more important is that Garnett is a defensive monster and helped us win a championship. We need all we can get now that LA is sure to top Orlando.

  • Fine. The Celtics are better offensively without KG. Did you watch the Boston/Orlando game at all? Defensively…well, KG was the Defensive Player of the Year. Unless the C's are planning on acquiring Tim Duncan, I'd call it a fat chance that they'd get anywhere near the defensive value on Garnett in moving him.

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  • Nah, I think this is an example of the stats lying.

    The team's offense would have been much better against elite defensive squads like Orlando with Kevin Garnett in the lineup.

  • @Dave: I hope it's clear from the post that I agree.

  • tomc

    Convincing explanation? Ousted in second round!

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