BOSTON – As you skim the box scores of the Boston Celtics, you’ll notice the offense is scoring more, shooting better from the field, doing all the things that we all figured they would improve upon as we got deeper into the season.
But those strides offensively have come at the same time that the defense, while still really good, hasn’t been as dominant or consistent as we’ve seen them in the early going this season.
And there lies a dilemma of sorts.
Is the Boston offense really getting better, or do they look better because the defense isn’t as good as it was to start the season?
In Boston’s last six games, it really has been like role reversal when you look at their offensive and defensive numbers in that span compared to what they’ve done all season.
Boston’s defensive rating for the season is a league-best 98.9, but in the last six games it has slipped to 108.1 which is ranked 19th in that span.
Rebounding has been a huge part of Boston’s success this season, evident by their rebounding percentage this season being .513 which ranks ninth in the league. But in Boston’s last six games, they are dead-last at .452. Against the Suns, the Celtics were out-rebounded 45-31.
And offensively, the Celtics are averaging 109.3 points in their last six games which ranks eighth in the league in that span, a noticeable bump from their season average of 104.5 which ranks 19th.
Boston’s offensive rating of 112.3 in the last six games ranks sixth in the league, which is an improvement upon their season average of 105.4 which ranks 13th in the NBA.
The improved play offensively has been due to a couple of reasons.
“The offense is getting a little better and the defense has not played as well,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “The good news is you have to be able to score the ball; you have to get better at scoring the ball for us, from where we started the season. And we’ve shown ourselves capable on defense.”
Boston hasn’t had as many moments consistently of late when the defense has played its best, something that Stevens acknowledges.
“I wouldn’t say we’re regressing,” said Stevens, whose team gave up 111 points to the Suns which was the highest point total allowed this season in a Celtics victory. “But we’ve certainly have had our moments when we haven’t played as well.”
Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 116-111 win over Phoenix on Saturday afternoon.
You won’t find another Boston Celtics player criticized more for their shooting than Marcus Smart. Considering how he has struggled with his shot most of this season, that’s understandable. But against the Suns, Smart passed on a lot of good shots for either great ones for his teammates or better ones for himself. And the end result was one of the few games this season when Smart shot well from the field (3-for-6, 13 points), delivered a strong game defensively and still managed to get his teammates involved (he had seven assists) with few mistakes (no turnovers).
Second unit success
Boston’s backups delivered one of their more complete games this season, balancing diversified scoring with solid defense. For the game, they outscored Phoenix 45-32 with all five reserves scoring at least three points while two of Boston’s top three defensive ratings posted by reserves Terry Rozier (92.5) and Semi Ojeleye (100.0).
Jayson Tatum/Josh Jackson
Just like Jayson Tatum and Philadelphia’s Markelle Fultz will forever be linked because of the trade that ultimately allowed the Sixers to draft Fultz and Boston to select Tatum, there’s a Tatum/Josh Jackson connection that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Jackson didn’t want to work out for the Celtics leading up to the draft, with multiple league sources telling NBC Sports Boston his concern was about having a limited role in Boston as opposed to Phoenix where he would play significant minutes from Day One. The irony is that not only is Tatum playing more minutes than Jackson, but he’s doing so as a starter versus Jackson who comes off the bench for a sub-.500 team. Meanwhile, Tatum and the Celtics (20-4) have the best record in the NBA. In their matchup on Saturday, Tatum had 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting along with six rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots in 26 minutes, 30 seconds of playing time. Jackson had seven points on 3-for-5 shooting in 14 minutes, 57 seconds in addition to one rebound.
The Boston Celtics have been pleased with the 22-year-old’s defense thus far this season. Lately, it seems he’s starting to provide a nice alternative offensively, too. Against Phoenix, Ojeleye had seven points which included him being 2-for-3 from 3-point range. In his last four appearances off Boston’s bench, he has shot 41.7 percent from 3-point range. Prior to that, he was connecting on just 28.6 percent (10-for-35) of his 3-point shots.
One of the unspoken truths about this Boston Celtics team this season has been Jaylen Brown emerging as the team’s No. 2 scorer. Lately, he has managed to generate offense from the free throw line which not that long ago, was a place where the second-year wing really struggled. Against the Suns on Saturday, Brown had 17 points which included him making six of his eight free throw attempts. The six made free throws tied his career high and the eight attempts was a season-high for Brown.