Of all the difficult teams to project in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, arguably the most difficult is the Boston Celtics. Boston’s season has been an incredible roller-coaster of winning streaks, losing streaks, key injuries, small injuries to key players and individual hot and cold streaks that it’s nearly impossible to say with any real confidence what the playoff product will be.
Take the point disparities, for example. The Celtics are 5th in points allowed per possession and 12th in the overall PPP, per mySynergyStats, but they are 24th in offensive rating. (Note: The disparity in PPP vs. offensive rating is likely because Synergy tracks points per play, while offensive rating is measured in points per possession. The difference is in how they count offensive rebounds, of which the Celtics don’t get very many, but when they do, they convert at the 3rd best rate in the league, per Synergy.)
Basically, any prediction involving the Celtics at this point is guesswork, so instead of trying to project, let’s take a look at four keys to Boston’s playoff run that will probably have a very tangible effect on their success.
1. The Starting Lineup and the Emergence of Jeff Green
It may seem obvious that the starting lineup is key for a team in the playoffs, but before April 7 (a week ago Sunday) the lineup that Doc Rivers says will be starting in the playoffs had played exactly 13 minutes together, per NBA.com. That lineup includes Avery Bradley at point guard, Paul Pierce and Jeff Green at the wings, Brandon Bass in the high post and Kevin Garnett at center.
Bass and Garnett have been playing the 4 and 5 spots since last season, so no real surprises there. Avery Bradley is very much a stopgap at point guard, but we will get to him in a minute. Paul Pierce continues to be impressive. Far from being ageless, Pierce shows the obvious toll years of basketball have taken on his body, which makes his continued effectiveness all the more impressive.
But when we examine Jeff Green’s play as he has become progressively more comfortable this season, we begin to see Boston’s conundrum. Pegged as a terrible contract early in the year, Green’s emergence has been a bright spot in an otherwise dark, injury-riddled season for the Celtics.
Per Synergy, 26.2% of Green’s possessions are spot-up plays, and he’s very dangerous in that role. He’s shooting 46.5% from 3-point range in spot-up situations in 129 attempts and averaging 1.2 points per play. Most of his spot-up effectiveness is a result of efficient shot selection: lots of 3-pointers and lots of layups off drives to the basket.
Boston likes to establish Green early, since he operates so well with confidence, and since his 3-point shot forces opponents to respect him away from the basket.
Once Green has established himself as a legitimate threat, Boston’s offense works particularly well with Green and Pierce playing off each other. In the next video, the threat of Pierce is enough to discourage help defense on Green which leads to an easy dunk.
After Green gets around Carmelo Anthony’s lackadaisical defense, Shumpert can either step in front of him and try to stop the drive or he can allow Green to score easily and prevent Pierce from getting an open 3-pointer. Shumpert wisely steps away from Green (since he might have been called for a blocking foul), and Green finishes at the rim.
Pierce sometimes acts as Boston’s point-forward as well, and Green benefits from this in a rather obvious way, given his proclivity for spot-up 3-pointers: Drive-and-kick plays.
This is as basic as a drive-and-kick can be. Pierce gets a pick from Terry, whose defender fails to hedge properly, allowing Pierce to get into the lane. Green’s defender helps to prevent the layup, and Green buries the open 3-pointer.
Up to this point, Boston’s offense looks great with Green. He spots up well, he finishes well around the rim, and he scores efficiently in transition (1.24 points per play, per Synergy). The problem is that Green attacks opponents best as a stretch-4. On national TV, Green went nuclear on Miami, scoring 43 points on 21 field goal attempts. He did this mainly by blowing past the Heat’s slower big men, Shane Battier, Chris Anderson and Udonis Haslem, since Miami was reluctant to pull LeBron James off of Pierce.
As you can see, Green feasted on slower defenders who couldn’t keep him from getting the ball on the glass. But in Boston’s current starting lineup, he is playing exclusively at the wing, which seems to mess with him. Though our sample size is admittedly small (three games, since the lineup has been in use since April 7 and Green played mostly at the four against Miami on Friday), Green has shot just 31% from the field and has attempted just eight free throws in three games.
Part of Green’s problem has been his hesitance to drive from the wing and an otherwise uncommon reliance on mid-range jumpers. Here we see him settle for a jab-step jumper against Gerald Wallace, and a pull-up against Reggie Evans. Against Miami, we saw Green use that same path toward the middle of the lane to repeatedly beat Anderson and Battier. But for some reason, he doesn’t try to attack the rim against a notoriously slow-footed Evans.
It’s tempting to chalk up these ill-advised shots to inexperience at the position. The problem is that Green hasn’t had much time to learn and grow more comfortable at the position, with just five games under his belt as the playoffs commence.
2. The Absence of Rondo
When Rajon Rondo went down for the season, the Celtics were below .500 and fighting for their playoff lives. After his injury, Boston began winning in spurts, pushing themselves into the seventh seed with a sort of point-guard-by-committee carousel of ball-handlers. Avery Bradley has been the most frequent point guard for Boston this season.
Bradley is less than ideal as a ball-handler, averaging 2.6 assists and 1.8 turnovers per 36 minutes. But Boston has counteracted most notably counteracted Rondo’s absence by pushing the ball in transition whenever possible, relying on long outlet passes and run-outs by their wing players.
This has proven problematic for Boston at times because, frankly, they aren’t particularly good at running the break. The Celtics average 1.07 points per possession in transition, per Synergy, which isn’t inefficient in itself, but it puts Boston at 28th in the league overall. Bradley is one of the most problematic players, averaging just 0.92 PPP, good for 275th in the NBA.
The two plays in the video above more or less sum up Bradley’s struggles in transition. In the first example, he is by himself against multiple defenders and, not being a creative ball-handler in any way, he accelerates too much and finds himself too far under the basket. Bradley’s speed is undeniable, but his body control, especially on offense around the basket, is often suspect.
In the second play, Bradley does what makes him such an effective player: He puts on a ton of ball pressure in the backcourt and manages to strip Beno Udrih. Then true to form, after making a spectacular defensive play, he misses the easy layup. For all of his defensive attributes (and there are many), Bradley is, for the most part, a liability on offense.
Where Bradley can occasionally be utilized in transition is off the ball as a corner-3 threat, although it should be noted that he was considerably more dangerous last year from the corners. This season, Bradley is shooting just 35% from the corners, per NBA.com/stats, which makes him a shooter defenses should recognize, but not someone Boston should regularly rely on.
When transition opportunities work for the Celtics, it’s usually because multiple players have taken off up the floor. The Celtics are bad at creating for themselves in transition, with Bradley being the obvious example. But one area in which they often succeed is when the rebounder doubles as the ball-handler up the floor. After Rondo’s injury, Paul Pierce began grabbing more rebounds, and when he gets the rebound, he often pushes the ball himself. In the following video, this leads to a transition 3-pointer for Bradley.
As you can see, Pierce has a ton of options in this particular break, in part because the Celtics got out immediately and in part because Orlando’s transition defense was an absolute mess.
Josh McRoberts has the unfortunate task of somehow trying to guard Courtney Lee, Chris Wilcox AND Avery Bradley, and, unsurprisingly, he is unable to do so.
But the point worth noting here is that by pushing the ball as the rebounder, Pierce was able to negate the Celtics’ lack of a traditional ball-handler. This will be important for the Celtics, especially in a long series against opponents who will eventually discover that pressuring Boston in the backcourt without Rondo can be an effective strategy.
One other strategy the Celtics employ a fair amount when they can’t get out in transition is using a hand-off near the elbow to create the penetration Rondo used to provide. Since none of the Celtics are primary ball-handlers, the hand-off and ensuing screen help them get into the lane. This is especially helpful for Boston’s primary wing scorers, Green and Pierce. For Green, this can create space to drive when teams are doubling and preparing for his move. For Pierce, it can get him a mismatch or the space necessary to hit his patented elbow jumper.
This can be a problematic strategy at times, especially when the Celtics are settling for and missing jumpers. Although Pierce is deadly from the elbow, when players like Bradley, Green and Courtney Lee settle for jumpers in hand-off sets, it can kill the penetration if they are having an off-game. But frankly, it’s not exactly a revelation that Boston will have to hit jumpers to win in the playoffs.
3. Defense and the Effect of Kevin Garnett
Defensively, the Celtics are still mostly the same as previous years. They are still anchored by Kevin Garnett, who still hedges pick-and-rolls as well as just about anybody in the league, and who still anticipates an opponent’s movements half a second before the opponent makes it. Here, we see him hedging and pick-and-pop against Washington, covering the ground necessary to prevent a mid-range jumper and frustrating Nene badly as the Wizards’ center tries to make a move in the post.
He also still quarterbacks the defense and causes havoc on opposing teams’ offensive sets. Here, the Wizards want to get Okafor the ball in the post, but since they can’t, Trevor Ariza is forced to pull the ball out and start the set over.
Ariza tries to split two defenders with a pass, and even though it’s Wilcox who comes up with the steal, Garnett had already rotated over to help if the pass somehow did get through.
One major difference in Boston’s defense has been, once again, the emergence of Jeff Green as an individual defender. Green’s rotations still leave something to be desired fairly often. But as an individual defender, he has submitted tough performances against LeBron James (twice) and Carmelo Anthony in the past month.
To be fair, after these two possessions, LeBron got the basket and scored a putback layup, then banged home a mid-range jumper that essentially ended the game. It should be noted, however, that Green couldn’t have played the jumpshot much better, and at that point, LeBron was in the superhero mode he seems to achieve so frequently against the Celtics.
One other major difference in this year’s playoffs will be Bradley’s return as a spectacular on-ball defender. Much of Bradley’s effectiveness rides on what contact an official will allow and what they won’t. It’s easy for Bradley to get into foul trouble when referees don’t appreciate his physicality and start calling him for bumping his opponent. If they allow that contact, Bradley becomes an insufferable pest for opposing teams, often forcing them to start their sets 10 or more seconds into the shot clock. If they don’t allow the contact, Bradley will be in foul trouble very quickly. The good news is that if he can rein himself in, he is also very aware of his surroundings, which makes him an excellent pick-and-roll defender, navigating screens expertly.
So Boston’s defense is pretty good, and it could get even better during the playoffs as Garnett plays more minutes. The problem is that even if you make an opponent miss a shot, if you don’t get a defensive rebound, you basically wasted your defensive possession, which leads us to our fourth key.
4. The Rebounding Problem
It’s not exactly a secret that the Celtics are bad at rebounding. In fact, since 2008, Doc Rivers has made it a point of emphasis that players should opt to get back on defense as opposed to crashing the offensive boards. But this year in particular, Boston has been noticeably bad on the defensive boards as well, grabbing just 73.2%, per Basketball-Reference.com, of all available defensive rebounds, which is good for 22nd in the NBA. Rephrased: Boston allows opponents a second-chance opportunity 27.8% of the time, on average.
The Celtics rely heavily on their defensive prowess to win games, which means that any offensive rebound surrendered is a rather big hit. Big man Shavlik Randolph has achieved something of a cult status among Celtics fans in part because his rebounding is reminiscent of rookie Jared Sullinger, who went out for the season with a back injury a few months ago. Randolph is a decent rebounder, averaging 4.4 rebounds in 12.3 minutes per game, but he is far from a solution to the problem. For one thing, he is mostly dead space on offense when he isn’t grabbing offensive rebounds (which, incidentally, make up 21.6% of his offensive possessions). He is also extremely foul-prone, and even when he grabs a successful offensive rebound it’s easy to see why.
Randolph quite literally crashes the glass, making contact with the players in front of him to secure rebounds from behind. He’s incredibly aggressive, and he knows where the ball is coming off the rim. The problem is that he doesn’t necessarily beat his man to the spot, and when he doesn’t, the extra contact is often whistled for a foul. The plays above may have been clean (it’s hard to tell), but it’s easy to see where similar plays could result in fouls. Randolph averages about 7.2 fouls per 36 minutes which doesn’t bode well for extended minutes.
Other than Randolph, the Celtics have few traditional rebounders. Garnett grabs a respectable 25.8% of all available defensive rebounds, but his playoff minutes will likely be limited to 30 per game, and Pierce, while an admirable rebounder for his position, can’t dominate the boards on his own. If the Celtics are going to advance, they will need to find defensive rebounds from players who haven’t shown much in the way of rebounding prowess throughout the season.
It’s impossible to project where the Celtics will finish in the playoffs. After a long, disappointing regular season, it’s not unlikely that the Knicks will finish off the Celtics in four or five games. It’s also possible that Boston’s vets will once again find that playoff switch and make another run to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, as the Eastern Conference gets more dangerous and the Celtics get older, the latter sounds increasingly less likely.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.
Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com.