The Celtics played to two of their major offensive strengths against Memphis.
With Rajon Rondo consistently pushing tempo, the C’s got out in transition regularly and put up 26 fast break points. Running is an efficiency move for the Celtics as they’re first in the league with 1.2 points per transition possession (per mySynergySports).
They also launched up 20 three-pointers, another good thing. The Celtics shoot 42.2% on threes, which is first in the league by a healthy margin over the second place Hawks, who are hitting 39.9%. The Celtics have shot 20 or more three-pointers only five times this season. They’ve won each of those games.
The win against Memphis was a frustratingly atypical performance for the C’s because they play so slow — they’re third last in the league in pace — and as a result, they only get up 15.4 three-point shots a game (22nd in the league). Despite much prodding from Doc Rivers to push tempo, the Celtics often default to walking the ball upcourt and settling into their offensive sets with around 12 seconds left on the clock.
Pace is only partially responsible for the lack of efficient shots, of course. It’s reasonable to wonder if the Celtics’ offensive play selection is maximizing their offensive output. It’s even more reasonable to wonder about the lineups, and whether they’re “young” enough to maintain their energy. And it’s obvious the Celtics lack the kind of rebounding that promotes the running game.
We’ve touched on this structural inefficiency in the Boston offense before, but it bears repeating: the Celtics remain 17th in the league in offensive efficiency.
With few obvious ways to upgrade the offensive talent on the roster, the C’s have to find ways to get more out of what they have if they want to do any damage in the playoffs. They need easy, efficient buckets. Grinding for every basket in the halfcourt is going to bear little fruit and wear the older guys out quickly. That’s the deadly little secret about the C’s recent success: it’s probably not sustainable four times in seven games against great teams. Because the burden on both sides of the ball is going to be exhausting.
There will be flashes, of course. You’ll remember Kevin Garnett’s huge game three against Miami in the playoffs last season when he put up 28 and 18. But also remember the last two games of the series, where he shot just 7-23. That’s what aging does to players. The peaks are still there, they just come less and less frequently and it takes more time to recover from the exertion of the climb.
This regular season is really just a lab experiment for the playoffs. What other options do the C’s have besides asking the Big Three (plus Rondo) to do everything?
Rivers has been a lot more creative this year — partly out of necessity — in mixing and matching his top four guys with the other parts on the roster. One of the more promising things he’s done involves pairing younger bigs with Rondo and some combination of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus.
It was encouraging to see Chris Wilcox and JaJuan Johnson filling lanes and outrunning the Memphis transition defenders yesterday with wing players spotting up on the arc (have a look at that clip at the top; if Wilcox had been covered, Rondo still had two options for three-balls). These kinds of lineups maximize what Rondo can do offensively.
So, there’s something to keep in mind as the year wears on: can the C’s build the kind of trust in new lineups and combinations so they can feel comfortable deploying them in the playoffs?