How can the Boston Celtics salvage their 2020-21 season?
It starts with playing a more consistent brand of basketball and bringing the necessary effort for a full 48 minutes. Better health could aid their cause, too.
But for this week’s edition of the "Forsberg Four" -- watch the video version each week on "Celtics Post Up" -- we tried to find four numbers that accentuate why Boston finds itself two games under .500 and in the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference with two-thirds of the season in the rearview mirror.
More importantly, we try to figure out if Boston can improve those numbers and actually make a late-season surge.
That’s the total number of days that Celtics players have missed this season while in health and safety protocols, according to COVID-19 data tracked by Fansure. That’s easily the highest number in the NBA and a particularly jarring number when you consider how few player days some other rivals have lost (the Indiana Pacers, for example, have lost only 2 days this season, the lowest mark in the NBA). In fact, the Celtics have lost more player days than the Pacers, Pelicans, Cavaliers, Hawks, Pistons, Clippers, Warriors, Magic, Blazers, and Thunder combined.
Eleven players on Boston’s roster have missed time in protocol this season, including recently acquired Evan Fournier after what he suggested was a false positive before his expected debut in Oklahoma City.
Between illness and injuries, the Celtics have virtually never had their core intact for a sustained stretch. Jaylen Brown has battled knee tendonitis, Jayson Tatum missed time due to COVID, Kemba Walker missed the start of the year and now sits out back-to-backs due to knee maintenance, and Marcus Smart missed 18 games with a calf strain.
Will the 2020-21 Celtics ever get a sustained run of good health? Immunizations could help curb some of Boston's health and safety woes (Grant Williams recently posted about getting his first shot). Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he thinks most of the team will get their shots and has stressed that better health could deliver the continuity and chemistry this team has sorely lacked. And yet the clock is ticking on Boston’s chance to develop that before the playoffs arrive.
That’s Boston’s points-per-play average on all isolation possessions this season. That number ranks the team 20th in the NBA. More concerning, despite their inefficiency in isolation, the Celtics average the eighth most isolation plays per game this year.
This was highlighted Wednesday night when Tatum dribbled the ball 24 straight times and used up nearly the entirety of the 24-second clock before taking an off-balance floater in the lane against Dallas. Boston’s offensive system is predicated on both ball and player movement, and for the entirety of that possession, it felt like the rest of the team watched as Tatum dribbled the air out of the ball and settled for a low-percentage shot.
It’s telling that, beyond Payton Pritchard, who has been excellent averaging 1.13 points per play on a mere 0.4 isolation possessions per game, the Celtics do not have a single player that ranks above the 43rd percentile in isolation efficiency (Pritchard sits in the 89th percentile). Tatum, who averages a team-high 4.7 isolation possessions per game, is at 0.84 points per play. Marcus Smart (0.79) and Jaylen Brown (0.77), and Kemba Walker (0.68) have been even worse.
The addition of Fournier gives the Celtics another shooting threat and a secondary playmaker. His presence should also promote better ball movement when he’s on the court. But the Celtics have to stop settling for poor isolation opportunities when the offense bogs down.
That’s what opponents are shooting on 3-point shots against Boston this season, which is tied for 20th in the NBA. Over the past two months, that number is even more of an eyesore at 38.2 percent, which ranks 25th in the NBA since Feb. 1.
What’s wild is that Boston has always been an elite 3-point defense during the Brad Stevens era. The Celtics have had the sixth best 3-point defense or better in nearly every season under Stevens, including a top-2 3-point defense in three of the past four years.
All of which suggests that Boston has the personnel to better defend the 3-point line but simply hasn’t done it very well this year. Much of their defensive woes this season can seemingly be traced to opponents hitting a demoralizing amount of 3-point shots against them.
Whether it’s doing a better job of straying from shooters, or more aggressive closeouts, the Celtics have to do a better job of making those shots tough. Teams aren’t taking an exceptionally high number of 3-pointers against Boston (34.7, 18th in the NBA) and it’s virtually the same number from last season (34.8) when opponents shot just 34 percent on all 3s.
That’s the number of points per 100 possessions the Celtics are allowing in transition after all live-ball rebounds this season as tracked by advanced metric site Cleaning the Glass.
So why does that number matter?
Well, one of Boston’s biggest faults this season has seemingly been players hanging their heads after missed shots. There seems to be an obvious correlation between frustration with missed shots and a lack of defensive energy on the possessions that follow, and Boston’s woes tend to snowball from there.
This metric seemingly confirms what the eye test tell us. Whenever Boston misses shots, instead of sprinting back and forcing opponents to beat them in halfcourt sets, this team is too often allowing teams to race the other way and generate easy points. That number is the 4th worst mark in the NBA this season.
Much like Boston’s 3-point shooting woes, this is atypical of Stevens’ teams. Cleaning the Glass data shows that Boston has been in the top 10 of the transition-after-live-ball-rebounds metric in five of the past six years, including four top 5 finishes.
For whatever reason, players haven’t been mentally strong enough to move past frustrations when shots don’t fall this season. And it hammers home how Boston has to be better when adversity hits and simply move on to the next play.