The Celtics have emerged as one of the Eastern Conference’s best, most competitive team. The C’s have matched preseason expectations – not only are they on pace to eclipse 50 wins on the season, but Boston will earn home court advantage in at least the opening round of the playoffs.
As head coach Brad Stevens recently noted, however, the Celtics may not be as good as their record would indicate. The team has real flaws and vulnerabilities, some of which could become true achilles heels in the postseason.
I’ve cataloged a few of the most telling team statistics that could represent an underlying issue for the Celtics, and what it means for the team heading into the final stretch of the schedule and beyond.
With 67 games in the books, Boston has already played in 42 “clutch” games (a five point difference with under five minutes to play). The Celtics are an impressive 28-14 in these instances, but have logged the second-most such contests in the entire league. As such, Isaiah Thomas’ fourth quarter heroics haven’t just been impressive, they’ve been essential for the C’s success.
What I find to be troubling is not the outcome of the final frame of the game, but rather what is happening right after halftime. At present, the Celtics’ +/- for the third quarter this season is just 0.1, the lowest margin for any period for the team. For a team with Conference Championship aspirations, Boston often heads into the fourth quarter in unnecessarily close games.
Employing the King in the Fourth is an exciting and powerful weapon for this Celtics club now, but facing more dire straights, it’s unclear if relying on Thomas’ improbable play will be a sustainable winning formula. Boston has a very imposing core five, and if Stevens can help his team to build and hold leads better throughout the game, it’s possible the C’s will have a bit more breathing room in future fourth quarters.
Boston’s rebounding woes are certainly well-documented, but sometimes looks can be deceiving. Boston is currently boasts the eight best fast break defense by opponent points scored in the league, which to me indicates that the Celtics are focused on getting back on defense, perhaps moreso than grabbing a rebound.
It is possible that the C’s simply aren’t built to compete down-low, something we’ll address in a moment, and the trade off for having a good fast break defense may be on the offensive glass. Currently Boston owns the second-worst opponent offensive rebound rate in the league at 24.9 percent. Only the New York Knicks surrender these boards at a higher clip. Unsurprisingly, Boston is 26th in opponent 2nd chance points.
Whether a side-effect coach Stevens’ system, a lack in sizable big men, or a combination of both, the offensive glass represents an opportunity for opponents to gain an edge over the Celtics.
Despite surrendering too many offensive rebounds, Boston’s ability to defend down low is surprisingly satisfactory. Al Horford gives the club an added boost when it comes to rim protection, and is likely why the C’s have been able to reasonably hold their at the rim. With an average of 43.0 opponent points in the paint per game, the Celtics aren’t straying too far from the league average in this regard, and even edge out the Cleveland Cavaliers in this metric.
That said, some of the better teams around the Association are at their best down low. The Warriors, Rockets, Wizards, and Raptors – among others- rank highly in terms of points in the paint. Washington and Toronto in particular pose a threat to Boston’s frontline.
Guards like DeMar DeRozan and John Wall are explosive scorers that will give Boston’s defensive-minded guards a real challenge. And even if they are met at the rim by Horford or any other help defender, both the Raptors and the Wizards have talented big men who can be quite devastating when cutting to the basket.
The Celtics are at least on paper one of the scrappier teams in the league. Led by Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, Boston has a reputation of playing with a bit of an edge and a sense of passion.
Despite the energy and selflessness that comes each time Smart dives for a lose ball, Boston has a rather poor showing when it comes to opportunistic offense. The C’s notch just 11 second chance points per game, the fourth lowest mark in the league. And when it comes to points off of turnovers, the Celtics are a tick above the league average.
The numbers seem to suggest that Boston’s ability to fight for extra possessions and convert those into buckets is surprisingly thin. That said, even the casual fan is likely aware of the kind of magic the C’s can put together in the fourth quarter, so when and where a Marcus Smart dive matters.
The month of March has already produced two of the Celtics’ best wins on the year. First the team bested LeBron in Cleveland before taking care of business on the road against the Warriors. By my account, these victories constitute some of the most well-rounded and convincing performances for Boston during the 2016-17 season, and against the NBA’s elite no less.
It is, of course, pretty notable that Cleveland and Golden Sate were short-handed and missing key players. It’s impossible to separate this truth when building a narrative, and as good as the C’s looked in these contests, the outcomes would be different with Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, and Kevin Durant in the game. So yes, Boston does have two marque wins this season, but they come with pretty sizable grains of salt.
The above vulnerabilities shouldn’t suggest that the Celtics are doomed to fail. Every team has weaknesses, especially when you put them under a statistical microscope. Still, it’s worth noting that Boston has real faults, especially considering the team’s possible match-ups in the later stages of the playoffs. And whether these flaws are addressable or simply a byproduct of how the team is constructed, the Celtics are in a great position to compete.