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Early Season Foul Avoidance: Can it Last?

We’ve talked a lot about what the Celtics have done poorly early in the season. One old problem remains (turnovers) and a few new ones have emerged—the team’s offensive rebounding has collapsed, and they are not getting to the foul line. We’ve already made predictions about which of these early trends will last and which are flukes linked to small sample sizes.

But let’s focus on something we haven’t yet discussed: The C’s aren’t fouling opponents at nearly the rate as they did in 2008 and 2009, when they were among the most foul-prone teams in the league. In both of those seasons, the C’s ranked 22nd in opponent free throw attempts per field goal attempt, meaning only seven teams allowed their opponents to shoot more fouls shots per FGA.

I never considered the high number of fouls a huge problem. It came with the territory. The C’s contested jump shots like maniacs and forced a lot of turnovers, and John Hollinger and others have noted some correlation between forcing turnovers and fouling a lot. The C’s other defensive numbers were top of the heap. The fouls were part of that overall package, and it was OK.

But something interesting is happening so far this season: The Celtics are forcing more turnovers and fouling less often. Specifically: The C’s are forcing turnovers on 16.2 percent of opponent possessions, the #3 rate in the league. That’s up from 14.0 percent last season, a mark that ranked 9th in the league.

At the same time, the C’s rank 8th in fewest foul shots allowed per opponent field goal attempt. That’s a huge change. In the last two years, only seven teams have been worse than the C’s in this category; this year, only seven are better.

This is a big deal; it translates on the scoreboard. Through 11 games, the C’s are allowing 22 free throw attempts per game. Last year, they allowed 26 per game. That matters, particularly if the Celtics are going to dip a bit in rebounding at both ends of the floor. Every point matters. The C’s are shooting fewer free throws this season (21 per game, down from 25), and if the number of FTAs is dropping on offense, it would stand to reason that allowing fewer on defense is also a good thing.

But can it last?

It’s tough to tell.

Signs It Might Last:

Leon Powe committed 5.6 fouls per 36 minutes last season, the highest rate among Boston all Boston regulars other than Mikki Moore. (I know, who would have guessed Mikki was so foul-prone, right?). Rasheed Wallace usually commits just 3.2 fouls per 36 minutes, though that number is up to 4.4 this season.

Kendrick Perkins is also committing the fewest fouls per 36 minutes of his career, and KG has long had a Duncan-esque ability to contest shots without fouling.

Conspiracy theorists will say these guys get away with fouls because they are respected veterans while someone like Powe is still earning that sort of respect. But if you watch KG and Sheed play defense, there is an art to what they do. Watch KG defend a guard streaking down the court for a fast-break lay-up. Most players will bump that guard when they both get airborne. But KG is freakishly good at jumping up and backward at the same time, so that he uses his long arms to contest the shot without bumping the ball-handler with his body.

Sheed is also good at this sort of thing when he wants to be. If he, KG and Perk play a lot of minutes all season, the C’s foul rate should drop.

Signs It Might Not Last

• The C’s early schedule has been loaded with teams that don’t draw a lot of fouls. Six of Boston’s first 11 opponents rank in the bottom third of the league in drawing fouls (Phoenix, New Jersey, New Orleans, Chicago, Minnesota and Charlotte)

• Glen Davis had the second-highest fouls/36 minutes number (5.1) on the C’s last season. He’s coming back soon.

• It’s just really, really hard to force so many turnovers while staying foul free. And the C’s aren’t getting cheapie dead-ball turnovers, either. They rank 3rd in the league with about 9 steals per game. Take out the insane 20 steals the C’s swiped against New Jersey, and the team is still averaging 7.7 steals per game—the equivalent of the 10th-best mark in the NBA. And the C’s play at a slow pace, meaning their steals per possession numbers are off the charts.

If the C’s do start fouling more often, it bears watching, because they’ll have to improve somewhere else to offset the two or three extra FTAs they’ll be giving up each game.

Where will that improvement come?

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