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.
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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.
OPPONENT FAST-BREAK POINTS
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.
KYRIE IRVING’S DEFENSE
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.
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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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