The Celtics remain a reliably elite defensive team (6th in the league in efficiency) despite the season-long absence of Kendrick Perkins, the use of a rookie center with (apparently) only one working shoulder, and also having missed Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal for multiple games each. By the time they get healthy and the playoffs roll around, the Celtics appear a good bet to be amongst the two or three best defensive teams in the league.
But – what about the other side of the ball?
The Celtics’ offensive onslaught against Miami Thursday night was glorious to watch. The C’s hit shots (60.1% eFG), held onto the ball (a solid 12.9 Turnover Rate) and racked up 24 assists along the way to an elite Offensive Efficiency Rating of 120.4 against one of the premier defenses in the league (those sick of the hype should feel free to snicker here, or point to the Heat’s joyless wilting under the weight of expectation but the South Beach mob is third in the league in defensive efficiency so far this season).
Of course… last night’s efficiency also served as a reminder of how incredibly frustrating the Celtics can be on the offensive end. In the last two years, there have been countless occasions where the Boston offense struggled to score for long stretches, a worrying sign for a team with championship aspirations and so much ‘name’ offensive talent.
To wit, the Celtics’ offensive efficiency ranks for the new Big Three-era:
So, on the offensive end, they’re falling into line much like last year – as a middle of the pack squad.
What’s the problem? More after the jump.
What’s standing in the way of the Celtics being an elite offensive team?
Everything below comes with the usual early-season sample-size warning, so these observations are hardly conclusive. However, we can identify key areas to keep an eye on as the season goes on. Let’s check out some early returns.
The Celtics shoot the ball well – from the arc, from the field, from the line. They just don’t shoot enough.
I want to focus on three glaring weaknesses in the Celtics’ offensive game preventing them from shooting and one hidden, but potentially deadly one when they do shoot.
First, the glaring problems:
1) Offensive Rebounding
Make no mistake – even with Glen Davis crashing the boards, the Celtics are a bad offensive rebounding team. They’re 25th in the league so far this year in Offensive Rebound Rate.
Part of it is strategy – the Celtics typically don’t send multiple guys to the offensive glass, preferring instead to focus on setting their defense and picking up their men in transition. Healthy bigs would go a ways towards addressing it, particularly when Perk returns and Shaq can be used for short bursts of high-leverage minutes against weaker opposing second units. But there’s only so much upside here beyond the favorable matchups the Celtics big front line can create. Kevin Garnett’s much-discussed return to health hasn’t done anything for his ability to grab offensive rebounds, although perhaps that will change as he puts further distance between his knee and the surgery that trapped him in that ghastly year-long on-court recovery.
The solution – if there is one – might involve sending an extra man at the boards in certain situations when there’s less of a chance of a run-out if they don’t get hold of the rebound. But failing an injection of an athletic pogo-stick-style player at the 3 or 4, an unexpectedly large contribution from Shaq or JO, or a strategic shift, offensive rebounding looks to be a year-long area of concern.
Right now, the Celtics are actually hanging onto the ball well enough to be mediocre. But if they regress to past (low) standards, they’ll end up amongst the three or four worst teams in the league in this department. Perk is turnover prone so his return will only exacerbate the situation. Any sustained improvement will have to come from the entire team taking care not to overpass (Doc’s already made this a focus in the early going but it’s too early to tell if his mercurial charges are listening) and to make smart, clean passes, particularly when they have big leads. The Celtics’ cockiness/arrogance, as much as it helps them in other ways, encourages the team to get all lazy-like with the ball far more than is acceptable. And that – as all Celtics’ fans know – is when big Celtics’ leads turn into much, much smaller Celtics’ leads.
3) Free Throw Rate
So far, the Celtics are performing significantly below the last few years (Boston is usually in the upper third of the league) so this should turn around as the season progresses. Still, the Celtics are second last so far in getting to the free throw line. Why is that? Is it because of an over-reliance on jumpers? A series of point blank shots at the rim with no defender around to foul anyone (courtesy one Rondo, R.)? Or the guys avoiding hard contact knowing there’s a long season ahead?
Perhaps it’s just November. Ultimately, this stat is so far outside of what we’d expect based on our history with these guys, I’d suggest we collectively flag it and see where the Celtics are once we have a larger sample size to draw from.
Finally, and in the context of ‘How To Win Banner #18’, and the vagaries of playoff basketball, the one other niggling thing that could (should?) worry Celtics fans most – because it seems an insoluble problem without a roster change – might be:
4) The Reliance On Passing
The Celtics are first in the league in both percentage of baskets assisted and percentage of possessions that end in assist. Seen one way, the Celtics can fairly be perceived as a great passing team, deeply unselfish, and offensively balanced.
But now look at it from this angle:
So far this season, 73.4% of Ray Allen’s field goals have been assisted. That number has gone up every year for the last five. Each of those years, Allen has become less and less capable of creating his own shot (at the absolute minimum, he does it far less than he did previously, even if he is capable).
Garnett is in the same boat – this year 86.2% (!) of his baskets have come as a result of an assist. Even Paul Pierce is pushing 60% this season as his ability to break down defenders and score in iso-situations goes through a slow decline.
Basically – the emergence of Rajon Rondo is masking the offensive decline of the new Big Three. The Celtics can’t effectively spread the floor and isolate for a Lebron or a Wade or a Carmelo and watch them draw fouls and get easy points in the fourth quarter. They just don’t have the horses. Or the horses won’t do it.
All of which comes into stark relief when games (playoff or otherwise) get tight defensively, teams close out on shooters, fight through picks, shorten passing lanes, stick to Ray on his curls, and Garnett displays his usual ambivalence about working in the low post.
How often are the Celtics left with Pierce firing a contested elbow jumper or Rondo trying to create with the shot clock running down?
As a Celtics fan, how confident are you with those last two options, with the game or the season on the line?
In the end, I’m much more interested in the questions than the answers right now. After all, that’s what the first half of the regular season is for – letting us know what we’ve got in our 2010-11 Celtics.
Once we’re sure of that, we can really start arguing about what needs to be done.