How can that be? This is the team that went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year. This is the team that only lost Ray Allen (who’s out there hitting game-winners in South Beach), but gained Courtney Lee, Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Leandro Barbosa, and Chris Wilcox [back]. This is the team that still has Kevin Garnett (still one of the best big-men in the league), Paul Pierce (still one of the best small forwards in the game), and Rajon Rondo (arguably the best point guard in the NBA today). This is the team that has arguably the best coach in the game today in Doc Rivers. So what’s the problem? Good question.
This point actually has nothing to do with their struggles, but since there will be a lot of criticism about their weak points, let’s laud them for what actually looks good. For the first time in years, the Boston Celtics have an efficient offense. Take some time to let that sink in. Although the Celtics have been known for having a (way) below-average offense, their new additions, along with Rondo’s increased role and minutes, have led the Celtics to post an offensive rating of 104.9. That rating is good for 13th in the league, a number that the Celtics have not reached in a very long time in terms of offensive rating. The league average for offensive efficiency is 101.5, so the Celtics have an above average offense. Whoa. They also are scoring 98.2 points per game, which is good for 15th in the league. They are 15th in the league with their pace rating of 92.4 as well. What has led to this spike in offensive production? Rajon Rondo. The Celtics are getting more shots at the rim this year, and that’s because Rondo is averaging a career-high 5.5 assists to shots at the rim. Kevin Garnett is shooting a phenomenal 81% on shots at the rim, so inside scoring is going well for them. Doc Rivers’ pleas to get the Celtics to play through Garnett at the post are finally getting through to the team. Also, look at the guys that Boston brought in the off-season. All of those players bring significant skills on the offensive end. Really, the offense is not the problem at all. If they’re playing well on the offensive end, then the problem must be . . .
Here’s the problem: there is none in Boston. This is a shock because it is the same defensive system that led the league in defensive rating last year with a 98.2 rating. They also were second in the league with opponent’s points per game at 89.3. What’s the cause for the drop off? Well first of all, the Celtics usually start games out great. However, around 5-6 minutes into the game, Kevin Garnett takes a seat on the bench, and the defensive deficiencies begin. The Celtics always begin their games sharp, but the team suffers a little when Garnett goes to the bench. It appears as if all of their energy leaves with Garnett. KG is the backbone of the Celtics’ defense, and it has been that way ever since 2007. This is not a knock on the backup bigs for Boston, but their defense is not up to par to Garnett’s. Rondo also tends to gamble a little on the wings, which leads him to getting beat off the dribble. This is especially deadly when KG is out, for the backup bigs don’t know how to rotate properly all of the time. This leads to easy buckets for the opponents. Another way that opposing teams are getting easy buckets is off of pick-and-rolls. Wing players are going over when they should go under pick-and-rolls and vice-versa. The bigs are switching in the wrong situations which leads to mismatches in the opponents’ favor. The Celtics spent a practice on Thursday working mostly on pick-and-roll coverage, but it remains to be seen if that will pay dividends. Learning a defensive system takes time, so it may be a while until Boston begins to improve their once renowned defense. Avery Bradley’s return should aid their resurgence in this department, for the Rondo-Bradley-Pierce-Bass-KG lineup set defensive records last year. Bradley can’t get back soon enough for this defensively-deprived team.
The saying used to be, “As Rondo goes, the Celtics go.” That saying still rings true, but it gets deeper now. The Celtics are 5-1 when Jeff Green scores 10 or more points, so now it could be said that “as Green goes, the Celtics go.” Green’s contributions off of the bench are almost unfathomably important. If he can get himself going, it is almost certain that the Celtics will pull out the victory. On top of that, Green plays better with the starters, so when he gets it going with the second unit, his success carries on to when he plays with Rondo. Anytime a player is hot and he shares the floor with Rondo, good things will happen. However, the flip side to all of this is that Green has only scored 10 or more points six times. For such an important piece off of the bench, his performance has been excruciatingly inconsistent. There is so much potential for this Celtics team when things are clicking for Green, but that needs to happen more often. If Green can improve his consistency, this Celtics team will improve their consistency.
Rest of the Bench Mob
Courtney Lee’s offensive game has been inconsistent as well. After having an excellent debut in Miami, Lee’s shot has gone missing. It’s so widely documented and obvious that Lee even took to Twitter to have fun with it. Once Lee begins converting his spot-up attempts, life will be easier for him. Lee is the kind of player whose defensive performance is effected by his confidence on the offensive end. This is evidenced by the fact that on Friday against the Blazers, when Lee started off well, he ended up shutting down early ROY candidate, Damian Lillard. If he and Green, two key role players for this team, can be more consistent, it will pay immediate dividends for the team. Jared Sullinger and Chris Wilcox have done well as bigs off of the bench to spell KG, but their defense needs to improve vastly so that the Celtics can avoid those long periods of bad defense for the C’s. Barbosa has had a great start for Boston, but, like most other players on the team, he needs to improve his defense. While he is an underrated defender, that’s not saying much because he’s known as a poor defender. Far too often, he lets quicker guards beat him off the dribble or get past him on pick-and-rolls for easy shots on the rim. Barbosa is quick, so he needs to use that speed on the defensive end. All of these players are good, and while they stand to improve on the defensive end, is Doc using the right combinations to maximize defensive and offensive efficiency?
Is Doc Using the Right Lineups?
What lineup is Boston’s most efficient? Rondo-Lee-Pierce-Sullinger-Garnett. This lineup is a +18 (the highest among all lineups used this season) and has a winning percentage of 75%. That lineup also boasts a 3-1 record. Not to say that starting a rookie is the best course of action, but you can’t argue with results. Boston’s current starting-five of Rondo-Terry-Pierce-Bass-Garnett has a 4-4 record. Of course, Doc entertained the idea of a transitional starting lineup in the pre-season, but given their inconsistent start, he wants to go with what works. However, it seems as if starting Lee and Sullinger is also working. Although that fact comes with a caveat: two of those wins came against the Wizards. Yeah. But it’s worth another try before Bradley comes back.
Will They Improve?
Yes. From here (and here is pretty low on the win spectrum), they can only go higher. When Rondo returns from suspension and Bradley returns from injury, the Celtics will most definitely improve. However, they need to work on their systemic issues in the meantime. Boston’s defensive woes won’t fix themselves when Avery Bradley returns. He will help their defense, but he won’t solve it. Defensive teams win championships, not one or two defensive players. Until the team can improve its overall team defense, inconsistency will run free. For a team that prides itself for its defensive prowess, they haven’t lived up to expectations. Once they D up, Boston will go back to being a force in the East.