Dennis Schroder was every Boston Celtics fan watching the team’s recent offensive outburst when he passed out in Jaylen Brown’s arms on Saturday night in Portland, then needed immediate resuscitation from Grant Williams .
Boston scored 275 points in the first two games of their five-game West Coast trip and showed that despite early returns this year, this team is capable of having anything better than a lower third offense.
Watching Boston’s offense come to life in such unexpected ways sent our minds back to March 2019, when a scuttling Celtics team traveled west with their season seemingly taped off. A few solid wins to start the journey, including a beating from the Golden State Warriors, made us all wonder what exactly happened on the flight and if he had apparently rallied a frustrated group.
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(Spoiler alert in case you are really far behind on your Celtics DVR: This 2018-19 squad was not fixed in any way and bounced back in the second round of the playoffs, and the Celtics are still trying to put everything back together.)
Considering how 2019 has unfolded, we will cautiously make any strong statements regarding the Celtics and their ability to contain this offensive explosion. However, there have been some encouraging developments recently. Here are a handful of things the Celtics should hope to be lasting.
Attacking with a goal
Maybe it was Rudy Gobert’s presence, but Jayson Tatum – and the Celtics as a whole – were reluctant to lead in the first quarter of Game 1 in Utah. But the offensive floodgates opened as soon as Tatum went into attack mode.
In the last two games, Tatum has been credited with 25 records. He’s shooting 75 percent on all field goal attempts on those discs (9 of 12 in total) and has generated three shooting faults (making all six free throws). He’s also generated three assists in nine assists on those practices and hasn’t returned the ball in that streak.
While the biggest offensive development of the trip so far might be that Tatum has simply seen a few 3 points drop – this after his long-range shot has challenged him all season – it’s clear that Tatum is making the right play. more often with the ball in his hands.
He doesn’t just default to playing in isolation and settling for bad shots. He drives with a goal and is ready to move the ball when the defenses take charge of him. Teammates (finally) start to reverse shots more often, too.
Tatum had two of his six highest-utilization games of the season in the West, but the Portland game was by far their most efficient of the season (averaging a staggering 163.2 points for 100 shooting attempts). As Jaylen Brown reinstates after dealing with hamstring strain, the Celtics must continue to find ways to get the offense through Tatum and not devolve into basketball in my turn between the two stars.
The Celtics are ranked 10th in the NBA in turnover percentage while giving up the ball on 13.5% of possessions. In the last two games, that number has dropped to 9.1% – a mark that would lead the league by 3.4% if held.
We’ll keep shouting it from the top of the mountain: The Celtics aren’t talented enough offensively to be able to kick the ball and expect to survive it. Additionally, the team’s defense is too good to allow teams to feast on easy transition opportunities and must force opponents to gain points against a defined midfield defense.
They did it in Utah and Portland, and they would probably be 2-0 if the Jazz hadn’t scored 27 3 points.
Get to the line
The Celtics are ranked 20th or worse for free throw rate in five of Brad Stevens’ eight years at the helm. This season? Boston is No. 2 in the NBA with 20.1 free throws per 100 field goal attempts. And that’s with Brown, one of their top foulers, missing for 10 games with hamstring issues.
Schroder has helped those numbers increase this year and that has also encouraged Marcus Smart to drive more. Tatum isn’t getting as many whistles as he would like, but that number is increasing. Enes Freedom and Robert Williams are doing their part by receiving calls while chasing second chance opportunities around the basket.
The Celtics also log on 82.6% of their free throws, and those easy points have helped relieve the team’s stress when the shots don’t fall. Boston’s average of 17.6 free throws per game is the best score in the league.
Find the queues that work best
One of the perks of better health is that first-year trainer Ime Udoka was able to find and build on couples who perform particularly well. It also helped that Schroder and Grant Williams regularly answered the call when pushed into the starting role due to injuries suffered by the first group.
The Schroder-Smart-Tatum-Grant Williams-Al Horford quintet have now played 82 minutes, a team high this season, and have an offensive rating of 119.1. It would be the league’s highest rating by almost three points if it was sustained.
The Celtics need to find a way to get their favorite starting five to play at the same level when Brown returns. Mainly because the team has been very successful with a first sub-team comprising Schroder and Josh Richardson alongside Smart, Tatum and Robert Williams. This group has an offensive rating of 131.6 and a net rating of over 43.5 in 38 minutes.
Freedom has also been helping Boston’s reserve teams recently, both with its ability to seize second chance opportunities and its screen setting. The Freedom / Grant Williams duo are Boston’s best offensive duo with at least 30 minutes together (123.9 offensive scores in 75 minutes). In fact, Freedom is in six of Boston’s top seven two-man couples with at least 30 minutes together.
Bottom Line: Jury still absent … but progress
We’ll need a bigger sample to find out if Boston’s offensive explosion is lasting, or just if Madman’s Gold. The Celtics play two of the top five defenses in the NBA in the next three games with the Clippers and Suns. The top ranked Warriors surrender the following week.
The challenges are coming – well, not the Lakers and their retirement home defense – but we’ll soon know if the Celtics can capitalize on the offensive advances we saw last weekend.