Four corners of success for Celtics of late (besides scoring more points)

Four corners of success for Celtics of late (besides scoring more points)

BOSTON – The wins are starting to pile up for the Celtics, just like they were supposed to.

And one of the biggest logs fueling their recent run of success has been scoring.

The team that loves the 3-point shot like few in the NBA this season is connecting at a championship, Golden State-like rate of late.

Still, as you start to look closer at this recent period of near-perfect basketball on the Celtics’ part, you’ll find that while scoring is the epicenter of their success, there are other key categories that Boston is starting to corner the market on to keep the success going.

Let's examine the four of those corners of success that have played a central role in Boston’s ascension from being an underachieving team muddling around .500, to one whose play has reminded us all again why so many jumped on the Green Team’s title-contending bandwagon.

The Celtics were already one of the better teams in the NBA when it comes to assists-to-turnover (1.88), evident by their No. 5 standing in the league. But in the team’s current four-game winning streak, they have taken their pass-with-purpose game to another level by averaging an NBA-best 2.48 assists per turnover during the streak.

The poster child for Boston ratcheting up its passing attack during what has been arguably their best four-game stretch of the season has been...Marcus Smart?

Yes, the same Marcus Smart known primarily for his high energy, low-shooting percentage and cobra-like quickness defensively, whose insertion into the starting lineup coincided with Boston’s current winning streak.

What has often been overlooked with Smart’s game has been his ability as a playmaker.

We saw it in spurts coming off the bench, but it has really been among the more obvious strengths of his game now that he’s running with the starting unit.

During Boston’s the winning streak, Smart has an NBA-best 22 assists with just one turnover.

And among guards who played at least 30 minutes per game in that stretch, the closest one to Smart is New Orleans' Jrue Holiday whose assist-to-turnover ratio (5.43) Smart quadruples.

We have seen the choose-your-adventure brand of basketball played by the Celtics when it comes to rebounding the ball, something that becomes even more of a crapshoot when you factor in the team’s propensity for the long ball and how even more unpredictable good positioning to rebound can be when the ball is being sprayed all over the floor from all points.

But in the winning streak, there’s no denying the role that being strong on the boards has played in their success.

In the past four games, Boston’s 52.9 rebounding percentage ranked ninth in the NBA, which is a significant rise from their season percentage of 50.2 which ranks 17th in the league.

While the number doesn’t seem all that much different now relative to what they’ve done all season, here’s what you have to keep in mind.

Boston is taking a similar number of shot attempts in the past four games (91.5) as they have all season (90.4).

However, they are connecting at a significantly greater rate, 50.8 percent in the past four games, which is fourth in the league, compared to 44.9 percent overall (21st). 

There’s a noticeable jump in Boston’s 3-point shooting as well, which is 43.4 percent (third in the NBA) in the past four games compared to just 35.9 percent (10th) for the season.

When you combine better shooting with grabbing a larger share of missed shots overall, you get a better view as to how Boston’s offensive numbers have skyrocketed so quickly.

Success on the glass, more than anything else, means an increase in control of the game which is another one of those below-the-radar factors that have contributed to the team putting together a nice streak lately.

Boston’s transition defense has been at its best lately. For the season, the Celtics have held opponents to just 10.9 fast-break points per game, which ranks fourth in the league. During their four-game streak, Boston has been even more dominant in limiting foes getting out and running. Opposing teams are averaging just 7.5 fast-break points, which is the fewest allowed in the NBA in that four-game span.

But let’s be real for a minute.

It’s not like the Celtics have played the cream of the NBA crop.

The best of the bunch during their four-game streak has been the New Orleans Pelicans, who lost 124-107 in a game that pitted a pair of then-.500 teams against one another.

Since then, the caliber of opponent has only worsened with Boston having little trouble in beating Cleveland, Minnesota and New York – all teams with losing records with two (Cleveland and New York) ranked among the league’s bottom five in terms of fast-break points.

But here’s the thing.

Boston has had its share of problems all season against teams that, on paper at least, should struggle against them only to wind up having a better-than-average performance against the Celtics.

The fact that they are laying the smackdown on bad teams with clear flaws speaks to the C's continued growth into being more like the team so many expected to be among the league’s best by now.

I know, I know. Kyrie Irving is known for many things, but elite defense isn’t one of them.

And while most agree that his effort at that end of the floor has been high all season, we’re starting to see the fruits of that defensive labor pay off both for Boston and Irving.

In the four-game winning streak, Irving has a defensive rating of 99.7, which is better than any Celtic player averaging 30 or more minutes per game.

A big part of Irving’s defensive improvement has simply been being in a position to better contest shots.

Looking back at the 128-100 blowout win against the Knicks on Thursday, Irving opponents were just 2-for-7 shooting when he contested their shot. That was tops percentage-wise among Celtics defenders against New York.

Irving delivering the way he has lately in terms of scoring and facilitating the offense, combined with his strong play defensively as the wins continue to pile up, do more than just move the Celtics closer to catching front-running Toronto in the East.

It also better positions Irving to garner some legit league MVP consideration as someone who can do more than just score.

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Improved ball movement key in Celtics four-game win streak

Improved ball movement key in Celtics four-game win streak

After a rocky start to the season, the Celtics have ripped off four consecutive wins and seem to be getting into a groove.

While the defense has been among the league's best all season, the offense finally seems to be performing up to expectations. 

On their four-game win streak, the C's have averaged just less than 125 points per game. Their offense has climbed to 18th in the NBA in scoring and tenth in three-point percentage (which aren't great in general, but considering where they are coming from, not bad).

A big key to the improved offense in this recent stretch has been the ball movement. 

Prior to the four-game win streak, the Celtics averaged 24.3 assists per game. In the past four contests, Boston has posted an average of 29.8 assists per game. That's almost two more per game than the Warriors league-leading average of 27.9.

Against the Knicks Thursday night, Boston combined for 32 dimes, a season high.

Perhaps some of the credit goes to Brad Stevens for making lineup adjustments. Marcus Smart, the Celtics' second-ranked assist man, has helped the ball hop on the first unit. Gordon Hayward, who has visibly made big strides in his recovery over the past couple weeks, has shown the ability to be an elite primary playmaker for the second unit. 

After an exceptional four games of passing, the Celtics are now tied for seventh in the NBA in assists per game (25.2).

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Hayward's move to bench a catalyst for improving Celtics

Hayward's move to bench a catalyst for improving Celtics

BOSTON — While much of the praise for the Celtics’ recent turnaround has rightfully fallen on Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris for elevating to starting roles, it’s clear that the corresponding shuffle of Gordon Hayward to a reserve role might be just as important to the team’s more inspired play.

Consider this: Since the Celtics shifted Hayward to a reserve role on Nov. 19, Boston owns the NBA’s best offensive rating at 115.8 points per 100 possessions and the third-best net rating in that span at plus-9.6. Individually, Hayward owns the best net rating (+16.9) on the team for that eight-game span, ahead of even Kyrie Irving (+16.1).

All of which is pretty remarkable when you consider that Hayward’s net rating was a meager +2.3 through the team’s first 16 games. Hayward has obviously made great strides in his individual play while working his way back from the ankle injury that cost all but the first five minutes of the 2017-18 season. And Boston’s first unit struggles as a whole were baffling, with a lot of the criticism falling on Hayward as he worked to find his rhythm.

But Hayward set a tone by embracing the move to the bench, which has allowed him to showcase his playmaking skills, all while picking spots to rev up his offensive aggression. His 30-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist night in Minnesota on Saturday was an obvious sign of his progress but Celtics big man Al Horford was just as impressed with Hayward’s quieter 8/6/4 line in the Thursday night win over the Knicks.

"I think that Gordon again [vs. New York], the numbers probably won't show it, but his impact and the way he is getting others involved, he is making the right plays, he is being aggressive, and he just makes us look completely different,” said Horford. "I think a lot of it has to do with Gordon's play.”

Being a focal point of reserve groups has seemingly allowed Hayward to relax a bit and not force his chances. It has also spotlighted just what a complete player he can be. Late in the first quarter against the Knicks, Hayward chased down a long rebound and broke out in transition, beating four Knicks players to midcourt before a snazzy little bounce pass led to a dunk for Jaylen Brown. A minute later, Hayward drew two defenders to the 3-point line before dumping the ball over the top to a wide-open Daniel Theis for another slam. 

Since moving to the bench, Hayward is averaging 13 points while shooting 46 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He’s added 6.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and one steal in 26.6 minutes per game. Bump those numbers out to per-36 minutes and that’s 17.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6 assists, or an even more all-around contributor than what we saw in his final season in Utah (21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists).

It’s pretty obvious that, despite Boston’s first-unit struggles earlier in the year, Hayward will almost certainly elevate back to the starting group down the road. And we’re getting small glimpses of that group’s potential when Hayward and fellow bench newcomer Brown sub in for the Marcuses after the first seven minutes.

But as much as the first unit has thrived with the energy and grit of Smart and Morris, the bench is benefitting from the added scoring pop and defensive versatility of Hayward and now, Brown. Given the way the Celtics struggled so mightily to generate consistent offense whenever Irving isn’t on the court, this is no small development.

And clearly, it left Irving smitten as well.

“That second unit still has to develop their chemistry as they get Jaylen into that second unit, and I think they’ll look great,” said Irving. "We probably have one of the most talented second units in the league, if not the best talent, so now we just all put it together and put in a full 48-minute game.”

Much was made in this space about whether Brown and Hayward could coexist on the second unit, particularly after the tandem's struggles as part of the first group (and the spike their individual numbers got when not paired together). But it’s clear now that their woes might have been more tied to the unit’s struggles than anything created by themselves. It also helps that both Hayward and Brown are far more aggressive, individually, recently, playing to the strengths of their own games.

The Celtics have a long lineage of great sixth men and there will be a temptation to keep Hayward on the bench — his team-high $31.2 million salary notwithstanding — should the team keep winning. There’s little reason for coach Brad Stevens to tinker now when the team is playing some fantastic offensive basketball (even if the team’s recent offensive explosion has maybe caused a bit of defensive slippage, which is natural when a team is generating points at such a consistent rate).

Hayward’s progression is huge for the Celtics and key to how good they can eventually be this season. That Minnesota game was a glimpse of what Hayward might more consistently be able to produce later in the season but it’s clear he’s impacting winning now with his Swiss Army skills.

As Stevens likes to remind us, don’t get too hung up on who is starting. It’s all about finding lineups that play well together. And right now, Hayward’s play off the bench might be the biggest reason the team has gotten its season back on track.

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