If you’ve been watching the Celtics regularly, you probably don’t need statistics to tell you that the first quarter has been Boston’s best quarter for several weeks. Against Washington, the Celtics built a big first quarter lead only to watch it slip away over the course of the game. The Pacers led by just three at the end of the first before winning the second quarter by 12. There has seemed to be a trend: Play well in the first, hold on for dear life the rest of the quarters or get swept away by the tide. Unless the Cs are playing the Knicks, of course. Then the theme is “Build a big lead, keep building a big lead, game ends.”
Statistics back this up. Boston is scoring 25.1 points in the first, easily their most productive period both in terms of points and field goal percentage, and 24.3 in the second. After that, there’s a pretty significant drop-off in the third and fourth — 22.2 points and 23.3 points respectively. It would be tempting to chalk this up to pace in the first quarter (when players are most fresh and active), but that doesn’t seem to be the case: The Celtics are averaging 21.4 field goal attempts in the first quarter, but just 19.7 in the second. In the second half, they are putting up 20.2 field goal attempts in the third and 19.4 in the fourth. The first quarter is minimally better, but not significantly.
There’s one moderately logical explanation: Boston’s starting lineup of Crawford-Bradley-Green-Bass-Sullinger plays for roughly the first eight minutes of most games, and that lineup is probably the best assembled group of talent on the team. Other lineups are averaging higher field goal percentages — Bradley-Lee-Wallace-Sullinger-Humphries are averaging a rather staggering 67.7 percent from 3-point range, taking three attempts in their eight minutes per game — but against the opposing team’s starting lineup (the opposing team’s best lineup, obviously), Boston’s starters are shooting about 45 percent from the field, 35 percent from 3-point range, and they are getting to the line 5.2 times. They are generating about 26.5 points per game in 13.2 minutes, which is solid — the Detroit Pistons, a comparable Eastern Conference team in terms of record, have a starting lineup scoring 26.1 points in exactly the same number of minutes.
The biggest statistical difference between quarters, however, is from 3-point range, where Boston is scoring 42 percent in 4.3 attempts. The Celts take 4.3 in the second quarter as well and shoot just 31 percent. Why the drop-off? Again, the starters are better 3-point shooters as a whole, but the Celtics are also taking better 3-pointers in the first quarter. So far, the team has attempted 38 3-pointers from the corners in the first quarter, per NBA.com/stats, as opposed to 27 in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Boston has taken 72 above the break 3-pointers — generally less consistent treys — in the second quarter, as opposed to 64 in the first.
This points to a better offense. Corner 3-pointers aren’t something a team can just walk up the floor and take. They require ball movement, off-ball movement and a host of other factors we generally don’t see from poorly run offenses. They are also almost always a product of a spot-up jumper, meaning the shooter has both time to get his feet set and to take a good look at the rim.
This holds up around the basket as well, as the game goes on. Boston has taken 20 more shots around the rim in the first quarter than in the third, and the Celtics are shooting 54 percent in the first as opposed to 50 in the third. This indicates that Boston’s shots around the rim are fewer and better contested — again, a product of both better rim defense by opponents and less efficient shot selection by the Celtics. Once again, the stats back up what we have seen on the court.
Boston isn’t going to become a 50-win team simply by taking better 3-pointers, but the lack of efficient shots as the game goes on meshes with some of the problems we have seen. Shots get less efficient and harder. The offense begins to break down, and we start to see more mid-range jumpers and above-the-break 3-pointers. It’s a vicious cycle — a team gets increasingly far behind, and they begin to feel the need to shoot from behind the arc to make up the difference faster. But when a 3-pointer is the only option, it’s less likely to be from the corner, which means it’s also less likely to go in.
Whatever the case, you can bet Brad Stevens has noticed this as well. However Boston chooses to attack it going forward, allowing Stevens five days off to work on Boston’s hot starts and cold finishes is likely to make a difference.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.