Celtics report card: High marks for everyone but the bench
Allow Kemba Walker to sum up the state of the 4-1 Celtics:
“We have a long way to go. We’ve been playing well so far but we have so much we have to clean up and get better at,” Walker said after Friday’s thrilling last-second win over the Knicks.
"The best thing is we’re finding our way through the mistakes through the rough patches, through the adversity. The main thing we have to do is stay together. We can’t shy away from each other when things are going bad. We’re going to win together and we’re going to lose together.”
The Celtics have been far from perfect and yet they’ve found a way to string together four straight wins. Maybe the most notable aspect of the 2019-20 team has been its ability to handle early season bumps in the road. A year ago, when things started to go sideways, Boston unraveled. This year’s squad seems to rally together.
So the team is getting an A in chemistry. Let’s check the report card to see how they fared in other subjects last week:
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Jayson Tatum (A)
Hitting your first career game-winner will land you here but Tatum’s impact extended well beyond his clutch 21-footer against the Knicks. Tatum averaged 24.5 points while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 53.3 percent beyond the arc during Boston’s two wins this week.
Here’s the number that really leaps off the page: The Celtics owned a net rating of plus-21.1 with Tatum on the court and that plummeted to minus-26.4 when he was on the bench this week.
What’s crazy is that no other player on the team was in the negative for off-court net rating.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Kemba Walker (A-)
Walker produced two more games of 30+ points and he still hasn’t exactly shot the ball well yet. What Walker has excelled at is getting to the free throw line, combining for 29 attempts at the stripe in the two games last week. That’s a James Harden-like number and Walker made all but one of his attempts.
To hammer home Walker’s absurd attempt rate: The 12 other Celtics that played this week combined for 21 total free-throw attempts.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Marcus Smart (B+)
Tasked with being the primary defender on league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Smart limited the Greek Freak to 5 points on 1-of-2 shooting with three turnovers while logging a team-high 4 minutes, 26 seconds of matchup time. Against the Knicks, Smart split the majority of his defensive minutes between Julius Randle and Rookie of the Year candidate R.J. Barrett, allowing 5 points on a combined 2 of 5 shooting with three turnovers produced. Smart’s 3-point shooting helped Boston hang around before its comeback against Milwaukee.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Daniel Theis (B)
Desperate for quality minutes at the big-man position, Theis posted an on-court net rating of plus-13.5 over 55 total minutes this week. That was the second-best mark on the team behind Tatum for players with more than 15 total minutes.
Theis is averaging a modest 5.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks over 19.9 minutes per game this season.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Gordon Hayward (B)
Hayward dazzled in the second half against Milwaukee, helping spark Boston’s comeback from a 19-point deficit. He produced his first 20/10 game of his Boston career with 21 points and 10 rebounds against the Bucks.
When Hayward plays with confidence and aggression, the Celtics are simply a different team with a higher offensive ceiling.
Carsen Edwards (D)
Two weeks into his NBA career, Edwards is shooting 22.7 percent from the floor and 15.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc. It appears he chopped off his dreadlocks in search of a spark. Last week, he missed five of the six shots he took and played only 18 total minutes.
On the positive side: Edwards' defensive tenacity hasn’t dipped when his shot isn’t falling.
Robert Williams (Incomplete)
Williams himself has noted that the best ability is availability but minor maladies seem to strike each time Williams has an opportunity to really assert himself. This week it was hip bursitis that flared after Williams played solid minutes against the Bucks. This isn’t to suggest Williams should play through pain; we’re simply left wanting to see more of him.
The Bench (D+)
Injuries have made it tough to define early season roles and Boston has benefited from its starters carrying the scoring burden. Eventually, though, the team is going to need more from its reserves. Against the Bucks, the Celtics’ seven bench players combined for eight points on 3 of 10 shooting over 59 minutes of court time. Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye have provided solid minutes as small-ball bigs but the bench as a whole has to give more.
The Celtics climbed to 14th in the NBA in offensive rating after an encouraging week in which their offensive rating was 111.1 — or a mark that would rank them inside the top 5 of the league if maintained. The Celtics are taking exceptional care of the basketball (league best 11.4 turnover percentage) and Walker is helping them get to the line more often, which has helped when shots aren’t falling.
So why isn’t this an easy A? Well, the team’s first halves have been putrid. Boston owns a league-worst offensive rating of 91.4 in the first halves of games this year and they’ve rescued themselves by posting a league-best offensive rating of 122.7 in the second halves. The Celtics have to start better to maintain this early season success.
The Celtics held the Bucks to nearly nine points below their typical offensive rating and Smart’s defense in particular made it a quiet night for Antetokounmpo (whose offensive rating was a mere 98.7 over 35 minutes). The Celtics now sit ninth in the NBA in defensive rating (101.4) and one of the few negatives has been their defensive rebound rate, which ranks 21st overall.
Boston’s injuries at the center position have allowed opponents to generate second-chance scoring opportunities. Boston’s opponent turnover rate also plummeted this week (though it remains the fourth best in the NBA this season).
From dispatching Smart as Antetokounmpo’s primary defender to drawing up a game-winner, Celtics coach Brad Stevens had a stellar week. The Celtics continue to play without a full complement of big men and Stevens has made it work, particularly with creative small-ball lineups. Stevens has to be eager to get a look at a fully healthy rotation and yet the team is undefeated when short at least one body — and has often played down a couple of starters.
Jaylen Brown missed two games due to illness while Enes Kanter remained out due to a left knee bruise. Romeo Langford made his NBA debut against Milwaukee with a 14-second late-game cameo while rookie Vincent Poirier chipped in seven decent minutes when Boston needed some help on the glass against the Knicks. Tacko Fall got recalled from Maine for emergency depth on Friday but did not play against the Knicks.
It’s hard to quibble with an undefeated week, especially when Boston took down one of its primary Eastern Conference rivals. The Celtics avoided a letdown against the Knicks, though it probably shouldn’t have taken a Tatum last-second winner to escape.
Alas, there was no shortage of encouraging moments and the Celtics find themselves at 4-1 and believing they still haven’t played their best basketball. There’s a chance to keep building momentum with games against Cleveland and Charlotte to start Week 3.
Week 2 Grade: A-