Celtics

All of a sudden, Celtics are offensive juggernaut

All of a sudden, Celtics are offensive juggernaut

BOSTON — In the final moments of a perfunctory fourth quarter, as the Boston Celtics’ completed their demolition of the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night, Boston rookie Robert Williams took a pass in the lane, dunked hard with two hands, then hung on the rim for a brief moment, if only to expel some velocity before returning to Earth’s orbit.

Referee John Goble assessed a quick-trigger technical, which seemed more like a scolding for the way the Celtics’ offense was unrelenting, making the scoreboard operator earn his paycheck during a 135-108 triumph at TD Garden.

One hundred, thirty five points. For a Celtics team that seemed to miss the memo about the NBA’s offensive explosion at the start of the season, that’s a jarring number. To do it against the second-best defense in the NBA — albeit one playing on the second night of a back-to-back and without game-changing big man Myles Turner — was even more astounding.

Maybe Boston’s recent offensive eruptions shouldn’t surprise us anymore. Maybe crisp ball movement culminating with made shots shouldn’t shock us. But it’s simply staggering how far these Celtics have come in such a short period of time.

Back in late November, just a short time after Kyrie Irving cussed out Thanksgiving, the Celtics sat 27th in the NBA with an anemic offensive rating of 104.6. Their offensive inconsistencies contributed to Boston's 10-10 record over those first 20 games and, if not for some very good defense, it could have been a lot worse when you consider the three teams behind Boston in offensive efficiency at that point were a combined 13-46 (.220 winning percentage).

But on Nov. 26, with injuries forcing his hand a bit, Celtics coach Brad Stevens elevated Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris to starting roles in hopes of providing the energy jolt the Celtics so clearly needed. Even Stevens probably couldn’t have anticipated what has happened since.

Over the last 20 games, Boston owns the NBA’s top offensive rating in averaging 117.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s 2 points better than their nearest competition (the James Harden-fueled Rockets) in that span. It’s also 3.7 points better than the Golden State Warriors’ NBA-leading offensive rating of 113.7 for the season.

CHART: TALE OF TWO QUARTERS

The Celtics have turned their offense around the past 20 games.  A look at the key numbers (with NBA rank in parentheses):

                                First 20 games          Last 20 games
Offensive rating        104.6 (27th)            117.4 (1st)
Points per game        106.3 (24th)            118.7 (1st)
Assists per game       24.3 (11th)              28.4 (1st)
Record                         10-10                       15-5

During the early part of the season, it felt like the Celtics jumped on Irving’s back and asked him to keep them afloat with Irving seemingly the only player immune to Boston’s offensive woes earlier in the year.

On Wednesday night, Irving got a breezy fourth quarter. He could have kicked his feet up, instead he stood for much of the quarter to celebrate everything from Williams’ volleyball-style blocks to Semi Ojeleye’s Eurostep layup. For the first time this season, it feels like the Celtics are clicking on nearly all cylinders, putting at least seven players in double figures each of the past two games.

And Irving is having fun being a spectator at times.

“Real fun,” said Irving. "Making shots helps, helps cover up a lot of mistakes. But we’re just playing extremely well off the ball. On the ball making good decisions. Just the ball’s not sticking. Guys are getting to spots and making the most out of their opportunities when they get it. So just creating for one another and just making the right pass.”

It sounds so simple but for much of the first quarter of the season, the Celtics fought themselves. There were obvious growing pains reintegrating a healthy Irving and Gordon Hayward, while younger players struggled to identify and embrace their new reduced roles. When shots didn’t fall, heads hung, and Boston routinely endured the sort of lapses that contributed to a .500 start.

But the past month-plus has delivered some exquisite basketball. Smart didn’t just infuse energy, he brought the first unit a player who was happier to facilitate than fight for shots (though his increased 3-point efficiency has certainly aided the Celtics at times as well). Morris has played his way into All-Star consideration regardless of his role and now, finally, the rest of the roster is catching up.

Hayward is showing more confidence, more aggression. Jaylen Brown knows good things happen when he attacks the basket. Tatum can have stretches like the start of the Indiana game where he just dominates with his length and touch.

Impossibly, the Celtics are now an offensive juggernaut. In 45 days they’ve gone from lingering on the basement steps to clawing their way into the top 10 in offensive rating. Boston now sits ninth overall with an offensive rating of 110.9 for the season.

So what in the world got into these Celtics?

“When we’re making shots and we’re continuing to make each other better and making those plays that we weren’t making at the beginning of the season, just trusting one another in specific positions in our offense,” said Irving. "At this point I feel like we’re very comfortable in what we’re running, and guys being in specific spots, and opportunities that we can take advantage of, and passes being delivered on time, and just caring about the pass and caring about your teammate making a shot. 

"So everything we talked about at the beginning of the season, I feel like it’s translating now as we continue to get to know one another. Meat of the season right now and you can tell that our team is just feeling really good being around each other. And it’s totally different in terms of how we feel out there. It’s just really positive. And when I don’t have to go out there and score 30 it’s cool with me. I probably won’t have to score 30 until we play one of the best teams in the league — if any — [or] until the playoffs. So I’m happy about that.”

Irving wasn’t always happy. But he was unfailingly patient. Asked about the well-publicized team meeting in December, he admitted, "We could pinpoint a lot of turning points. … We weren’t at rock bottom but we needed to address some s--- in this locker room.” It didn’t cause the offensive turnaround but it didn’t hinder maybe the final step in that process, with younger players starting to accept their smaller roles.

Is this sort of offensive production sustainable? Probably not. And Boston would be well-served to tighten up a defense that has tended to slip a bit whenever the offense is thriving (the absence of players like big man Aron Baynes hasn’t helped either).

But a four-game winning streak leaves Boston feeling some good vibes. The offense is clicking and players are able to operate more freely, not lingering on what isn’t going right like they did earlier this season.

"As you can see, we're having a lot of fun — especially when you win,” said Tatum. "So if we just keep winning, we'll keep having fun.”

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NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum are NBA playoffs' hardest-working scoring duo

Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum are NBA playoffs' hardest-working scoring duo

More than any other sport's postseason, the NBA playoffs are dominated by the game's biggest stars.

That's why Kyrie Irving was so thrilled to be done with the regular season, and why he's elevated his game to drop a total of 55 points in two first-round wins over the Indiana Pacers.

The Celtics' second-best scorer, Jayson Tatum, is hot on Irving's heels, pouring in 26 points in Wednesday's Game 2 victory after adding 15 points in Game 1.

Just how central have Boston's "Big Two" been to the team's 2-0 start to the playoffs? Consider this eye-opening stat:

Per Boston Sports Info, the fellow Duke alums have scored 53.6 percent (98 of 183) of the Celtics' total points in Games 1 and 2. That's a bigger chunk than any other duo in the NBA playoffs, including the Portland Trail Blazers' super-backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and the Golden State Warriors' feared 1-2 punch of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.

There's some manipulation behind these numbers, of course. Only the Pacers have scored fewer points in these playoffs than the Celtics, meaning there's a smaller slice of the offensive pie to go around. Indeed, Irving and Tatum's combined 98 points ranks a distant fifth in overall scoring among teams' top two scorers.

But Irving and Tatum combining for more than half of Boston's offense is a good sign in the NBA postseason, where teams usually travel as far as their star players carry them.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Celtics vs. Pacers live stream: Watch NBA playoffs Game 3 online

Celtics vs. Pacers live stream: Watch NBA playoffs Game 3 online

The Boston Celtics took care of business at TD Garden. Can they carry that momentum into Bankers Life Fieldhouse?

The Celtics own a 2-0 lead over the Pacers in their first-round NBA playoff series and will look to push Indiana to the brink Friday night in Game 3.

That could be a tall task, as the Pacers led the C's early in the second half of both games in Boston and have put up a fight without star player Victor Oladipo.

But after coming up clutch in Game 2, Kyrie Irving and Co. will look to duplicate their April 5 rout in Indiana and secure a road win that would push the Pacers one game closer to a playoff exit.

Pregame coverage on NBC Sports Boston begins at 7:30 p.m. ET, followed by an 8:30 p.m. ET tip and Celtics Postgame Live immediately after the game.

Here's how and when to watch Celtics vs. Pacers Game 3 online.

When: Friday, April 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC Sports Boston
Live Stream: NBC Sports Boston

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.