For as long as The Big Three have been in Boston, this Celtics roster has repeatedly had one major flaw that you could count on over the past five seasons. Turnovers.There’s really no rhyme or rhythm to it. Doc Rivers hasn’t been able to explain it with any luck, it’s just been a consistent aspect of this team for better or (mostly worse), as the C’s have finished in the bottom-fifth of the league in turnover percentage over each of the past five seasons.
As the Celtics headed into this series with Atlanta, the turnover battle unsurprisingly was a bit of a concern against the Hawks. Boston had, as expected, averaged 14.8 turnovers per game in the regular season, and turned the ball over on a whopping 14.7 percent of their possessions, good for just 25th overall in the league.
The Hawks meanwhile entered the series as a team that had excelled at forcing turnovers in the regular season, using their athleticism and gritty defense to force teams to cough it up on 14.4 percent of their possessions, making them a top-6 NBA team in that department.
Putting these two factors into play coming into this series, you had a recipe for disaster potentially for the C’s, as they we were one of the worst teams handling the ball, going up against one of the best teams at exploiting that issue.
As a whole, Atlanta has played tremendous defense for the majority of the first three games in this best-of-seven affair, holding Boston under 83 points in regulation through three games before the C’s offense erupted in Game 4.
Despite the offensive woes, there’s been one hidden positive throughout these first four games for the C’s: Turnovers have not been a major issue all series for Boston. In fact, against all odds, the Celts’ are winning the turnover battle with Atlanta.
Compared to their regular season number (where Boston averaged 15 turnovers per game), during four games against Atlanta so far, the C’s have averaged just 12.5 miscues a contest. Now, that number can be somewhat misleading given the slower pace teams play at in the postseason, but here’s a number which is not. Boston has turned the ball over on just 12.7 of their possessions so far, a substantial drop from their regular season mark of 14.7. That 12.7 number would have placed them among the league’s elite (2nd place) over a full 66-game season in protecting the ball.
It is a small sample size, but for a team that has languished in the basement of the league in turnover percentage for nearly five years now, that’s nothing to sneeze at, especially in the postseason against a team in Atlanta with a good track record of forcing the issue defensively. So how have the Celtics’ fared so well in this department? Well, it starts with one guy generally…..the point guard. I asked Rajon about it after Game 4:
“It starts with me. I have the ball in my hands a lot and Paul (Pierce) and I communicate a lot throughout the came saying that we need to take care of the ball. So that’s what we have been focused on in this playoff series, taking care of the ball and all five guys crashing the glass,” Rondo said.
We’ll talk about that crashing the glass stuff later today (another pleasant surprise) but it is refreshing to see that emphasis from the team’s floor general on handling the ball with care, something he has struggled with a lot this year. Despite the Game 3 hiccup (6 turnovers) for Rondo, the point guard has been tremendous with the ball in his hands this series. The great news though? Rondo isn’t alone. For some perspective, let’s look at individual turnover percentages for this team in the regular season first:
That’s a lot of big numbers. It’s easy to see Rondo has been the biggest culprit, but there were still plenty of equal opportunity offenders heading into the postseason. Now let’s look at the top offenders this postseason:
Notice a bit of a difference there? Look at all those single digits! Outside of a slight uptick from Pierce (understandable, given how much he has handled the ball) and an outlier (Daniels) everyone has shaved multiple percentage points of their averages. Avery Bradley cut his number in half! Keyon Dooling doesn’t even have a turnover! The Celtics should be very excited about this and you should be too!
Why exactly is this especially encouraging? Well, the C’s as a team have a history of doing this during successful postseason runs. And by this, I mean cutting down their turnover numbers quite impressively. Let’s start with the 2008 title team.
In the regular season that roster, turned the ball over 14.7 percent of the team. In the postseason? Just 12.9 percent of the time.
Fast forward to the 2009-2010 season and you see a similar pattern. Once again, Boston coughed up the ball 14.5 percent of the time in the regular season. In the postseason? They cut that number down to 13.8 percent.
All of this speaks to this team’s ability to tighten the screws when the stakes are raised. Rondo spoke to that a little bit in his earlier quote, but Kevin Garnett put it candidly after Game 4:
“Sometimes man, individually we kind of get a little dysfunctional at times, but tonight everyone was very communicative in what we were talking about. Guys were giving tips. I don’t like bringing up some of the past, but it was similar to some of the things we’ve done in the past. Obviously this is a new group, new guys, deeper. There was a lot of dialogue today…..guys were focused in, you could feel it.”
The turnover issue isn’t a one-way street however. Just as Boston has been protecting the ball well, they are making Atlanta, an above-average team at handling the ball in the regular season (12th) cough it up quite a bit. The Hawks are averaging 15 miscues a game over the first four game in this series, up a turnover per game from their pre-postseason mark. Larry Drew spoke on his team not being ready for that kind of increased pressure from Boston after Game 4:
“It’s a playoff game. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be jacked up to play. The fact that we did not respond to their aggressiveness, it just totally took us out of our game. We didn’t respond to it all. We didn’t have the zap, we didn’t have the speed. We were doing everything at about 60 percent. This is the playoffs. How can you not have it?”
It’s a fair question Larry. Unfortunately, your boys are running out of time to find “it.” Meanwhile, while Boston has not played particularly well for the majority of the series, they are stepping it up where they have to, kicking it up an extra gear. And with a wide-open road to the Eastern Conference Finals looming, their timing couldn’t be better.