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How Does Pace Really Work?

Picture 4After losses to Atlanta and Indiana, people are beginning to ask: Do the older Celtics have a problem with teams that prefer to play at a fast pace?

The knee-jerk answer is going to be yes. Already people are fretting about the Pacers 27-6 advantage in fast-break points on Saturday, just the third time this season the Celtics have been at a disadvantage in that category, according to Chris Forsberg at ESPN Boston. But here’s the thing: There were 92 possessions in Saturday’s game, a number much closer to the average number of possessions in a Celtics game (90.2) than the average number of possessions in a Pacers game (97.5).

So it appears the Celtics won the battle to “control the tempo,” or at least fought Indiana to a draw.

So why, then, did the Pacers score so many fast break points? Did it have more to do with the Celtics 15 turnovers than Indiana’s ability to push the ball against the C’s aging vets? Or are the fast-breaking Pacers more adept at scoring fast-break buckets off of those turnovers?

Another way of asking the same question: Could fast-paced teams present problems for the Celtics even if the C’s manage to slow the tempo down to a pace the C’s prefer? Perhaps finding the true impact of “tempo” on the outcome of a game is more complicated than simply calculating how many possessions each team got and using that number to declare one team a “winner” in the tempo battle.

To look into this further, I went through every game the Celtics played against the four teams that played with the fastest pace in 2008-09 and against the five fastest-paced teams so far this season (15 games in total over this time frame, with the game-by-game data available below). I calculated the number of possessions per game using this formula and divided the games into three categories:

1) Games in which the teams played at a tempo closer to Boston’s average; in other words, Boston “won” the tempo battle;

2) Games in which the teams played at a significantly faster tempo closer to the opponent’s average; in other words, Boston “lost” the tempo battle;

3) Neutral games, in which the number of possessions was almost exactly in between the two teams’ averages.

How’d the C’s do in each category? The results surprised me a bit.

The C’s total record in those 15 games: 10-5 (.667). The C’s were 9-3 in 12 games last year and 1-2 so far this year. The .667 winning percentage is lower than their overall winning percentage (.757) during this span, but it’s still pretty solid and the sample size is, of course, very small. Let’s make it even smaller!

Here’s how the C’s did in those three categories of games I mentioned earlier:

When the C’s “win” the tempo battle: 4-4

When the C’s “lose” the tempo battle: 6-0

Neutral: 0-1

Yes, the sample size is small. But something weird is (or could be) going on here, right? When the C’s surrender the tempo battle and play some run-and-gun hoops, they’re undefeated and generally winning in blowouts; their average scoring margin in those five wins (all last season) is +12, far larger than their overall scoring margin of about +7.5 in ’08-09.

But when the C’s bring the pace down to their level, they’re at .500 (4-4) and half of their wins have been squeakers, including last week’s 92-90 escape in Minnesota.

What gives? Shouldn’t the C’s be more successful when the game is played at “their” tempo?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m guessing it’s complicated and linked to any number of factors, including rest, the schedule, the number of times the C’s turn the ball over and Kevin Garnett’s health. It could be that fast-paced teams cause the C’s some problems not by making our old guys sprint up and down the court but by simply being better-equipped to turn Boston’s (always plentiful) turnovers into fast-break points. It could be random statistical noise. It could be that a speedy opponent adding just two possessions to an average Boston game (instead of adding, say, 10 possessions) represents a triumph for the faster team.

I have no clue, really. But I know this: Basketball is too complicated to simply say “the Celtics have problems with fast-breaking team because they Celtics are old.”

Here’s the game-by-game data:

11/1/08: Indiana 95, Boston 79

Possessions: 93 (Pacers average possessions: 96.5; Boston’s average possessions: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Wash

11/18/08: Boston 110, New York 101

Possessions: 95 (Knicks average possessions: 96.7; Boston’s average possessions: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Knicks win

11/26/08: Boston 119, Golden State 111

Possessions: 96 (Warriors average possessions: 98.2; Boston’s average possessions: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Warriors win

12/3/08: Boston 114, Indiana 96

Possessions: 92 (Pacers average: 96.5; Boston: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Boston wins

12/7/08: Boston 122, Indiana 117 (OT)

Possessions: 106 in regulation + OT, equates to 96 in 48 minutes

Averages: Indy 96.5, Boston 90.4

Pace Verdict: Pacers win

12/21/08: Boston 124, New York 105

Possessions: 88 (Knicks average: 96.7; Boston average: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Boston wins

12/26/08: Golden State 99, Boston 89

Possessions: 89 (Warriors average: 98.7; Boston average: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Boston wins

1/4/09: New York 100, Boston 88

Possessions: 88 (NY average: 96.7; Boston average: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Boston wins

1/19/09: Boston 104, Phoenix 87

Possessions: 97 (Phoenix average: 96.0; Boston average: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Phoenix wins

2/6/09: Boston 110, Knicks 100

Possessions: 96 (NY average: 96.7; Boston average: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Knicks win

2/22/09: Boston 128, Phoenix 108

Possessions: 99 (Phoenix average: 96.0; Boston average: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Phoenix wins

2/27/09: Boston 104, Indiana 99

Possessions: 89 (Indiana average: 96.5; Boston average: 90.4)

Pace Verdict: Boston wins

11/4/09: Boston 92, Minnesota 90

Possessions: 87 (Minnesota average: 95.9; Boston average: 90.2)

Pace Verdict: Boston wins

11/6/09: Phoenix 110, Boston 103

Possessions: 92 (Phoenix average: 98; Boston average: 90.2)

Pace Verdict: Boston wins

11/14/09: Indiana 113, Boston 104

Possessions: 92 (Indiana average: 97.5; Boston average: 90.2)

Pace Verdict: Boston wins

  • Cas

    Pace doesn´t account for “change of Pace”, and that´s usually a big problem for older guys.

    The ability to anticipate situations is one of the first skills that professional athletes lose when they´re on the decline.

  • http://CelticsHub.com Zach Lowe

    @Cas: Great thought. That’s sort of what I was trying to hint at when talking about Indy’s ability to turn TOs into fast-break points, but you stated it more clearly than I did.

  • T

    Perhaps there is a little more here. Lets also consider a fatal flaw that plagues this Celtics team…Turnovers.

    Doing a little referencing to those games and a quick napkin calculation. I find that when Boston loses the pace competition, 14.6% of their possessions end in a turnover. When they win the pace factor, 16.7% of their possessions end in a turnover. Looking at this, its possible that turnovers kill a slow paced team like Boston much more than a fast paced team like Phoenix

    Like you said, this is a small sample size, but lets consider this. Boston is a team that like to move the ball. Obviously, when the pace is slow the ball is moving more and more before a shot it taken, thus increases the probability of getting turned over. When playing a more up tempo game, the ball is moving a little less and shots are being taken.

    Maybe with such a turnover prone team it would be wise to up the tempo a little

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  • Jason

    It seems pretty simple to me: the fast-paced teams included in this sample aren’t very good at basketball. All of the ’08-’09 teams were in the lottery, and of the ’09-’10 teams, only the Suns look like the real deal.

  • Jason

    Actually, I think that what T started to get at is very interesting. Having 10 more possessions a game increases the sample size of the game itself. There is no question that these Celtics are better per possession than almost every team in the league. It stands to reason that if they maximize the number of possessions in the games they play, there will be less noise in the results of the game.

    A bad team playing the Celtics will be better off if the game is slow and the Celtics make a few key turnovers because they will have 8 to 12 fewer scoring chances to make up for those turnovers if the game is slowed down. If Perk gets whistled on a few close calls on screens and the Celts suffer one or two bad bounces, then those turnovers are more likely to hurt you in a smaller sample, where these things will more likely even out.

    They counter is that pace is more likely to tire the stars, but I think this is somewhat overstated. It doesn’t mean the Celtics have to run the fast break to up their possessions–they can instead deliberately look for shots earlier in the shot clock.

    Anyway, I think that you’re on to something here Zach in that the Celts are probably better off with more possessions against bad teams, because they bad breaks aren’t going to bite them. When they’re clearly the better team, they want to have more possessions because they are more likely to end up on top when the sample is larger.

  • Jason

    I want to clarify a sentence above, which should read:

    “If Perk gets whistled on a few close calls on screens and the Celts suffer one or two bad bounces, the turnovers are more likely to hurt you in a smaller sample (playing at a slower pace), whereas these things will more likely even out across a greater number of possessions.”

  • Charrua

    I’m new, but here’s another idea regarding pace.
    One of the things that the Celtics defense does well it’s to force turnovers, right? In fact, it’s the one thing they do better than anyone (at least this year). So, it stands to reason that when the defense it’s working well, there are a lot of turnovers and fast breaks, and when it’s not working so well, there are less turnovers and more half court sets, right? Maybe what the weird pace numbers are saying is that the Celtics have been having trouble forcing turnovers against fast teams.

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