Dennis Schroder was every Boston Celtics fan watching the team’s recent offensive explosion when he fainted into Jaylen Brown’s arms on Saturday night in Portland then needed immediate courtside resuscitation from Grant Williams.
Boston erupted for 275 points over the first two games of its five-game West Coast trip and showed that -- despite early returns this year -- this team is capable of having something better than a bottom-third offense.
Watching Boston’s offense come to life so unexpectedly sent our minds racing back to March 2019 when a scuttling Celtics squad traveled West with its season seemingly being held together with duct tape. A couple of solid wins to start the trip, including a thrashing of the Golden State Warriors, left us all wondering what exactly happened on the flight and whether it seemingly rallied a frustrated bunch.
(Spoiler alert in case you’re really far behind on your Celtics DVR: That 2018-19 team was not fixed in any way and got bounced in Round 2 of the playoffs, and the Celtics are still trying to glue everything back together.)
Considering how 2019 played out, we'll tread cautiously with any firm declarations about the Celtics and their ability to bottle up this offensive outburst. With that said, there have been some encouraging developments recently. Here’s a handful of things the Celtics should hope is sustainable.
Attacking with a purpose
Maybe it was the presence of Rudy Gobert, but Jayson Tatum -- and the Celtics as a whole -- were reluctant to drive in the first quarter of the trip opener in Utah. But the offensive floodgates opened as soon as Tatum shifted into attack mode.
Over the last two games, Tatum has been credited with 25 drives. He’s shooting 75 percent on all field goal attempts off those drives (9 of 12 overall) and has generated three shooting fouls (making all six free throws). He’s also generated three assists in nine passes out of those drives and hasn’t turned the ball over in that stretch.
While the biggest offensive development of the trip thus far might be Tatum simply seeing some 3-pointers fall -- this after his long-distance shot had defied him all season -- it’s clear that Tatum is making the right play more often with the ball in his hands.
He’s not just defaulting to isolation play and settling for bad shots. He’s driving with a purpose and willing to move the ball when defenses load up on him. Teammates are (finally) starting to knock down shots more often, too.
Tatum had two of his six highest usage rate games of the season out West, but the Portland game was easily his most efficient of the season (averaging a staggering 163.2 points per 100 shot attempts). As Jaylen Brown reintegrates after dealing with a hamstring strain, the Celtics must continue to find ways for the offense to run through Tatum and not devolve to my-turn basketball between the two stars.
Valuing the basketball
The Celtics rank 10th in the NBA in turnover percentage while giving the ball up on 13.5 percent of possessions. In the last two games that number has plummeted to 9.1 percent -- a mark that would lead the league by 3.4 percent if maintained.
We’ll continue to scream it from the mountaintop: The Celtics are not talented enough offensively where they can kick the ball around and expect to survive it. What’s more, the team’s defense is too good to allow teams to feast on easy transition opportunities and must force opponents to earn points against a set half-court defense.
They did that in Utah and Portland, and they’d probably be 2-0 if the Jazz didn’t make 27 3-pointers.
Getting to the line
The Celtics ranked 20th or worse in free-throw rate in five of Brad Stevens’ eight years at the helm. This season? Boston is No. 2 in the NBA while attempting 20.1 free throws per 100 field goal attempts. And that’s with Brown, one of their best foul-drawers, sidelined for 10 games with hamstring issues.
Schroder has helped those numbers spike this year and that has encouraged Marcus Smart to drive more as well. Tatum isn’t getting as many whistles as he might like but that number is climbing. Enes Freedom and Robert Williams are doing their part by getting calls while chasing second-chance opportunities around the basket.
The Celtics also are connecting on 82.6 percent of their free throws, and those easy points have helped take stress off the team when shots aren’t falling. Boston’s average of 17.6 made free throws per game is the best mark in the league.
Finding lineups that work best
One of the benefits of better health is that first-year coach Ime Udoka has been able to find pairings that work particularly well and lean on them. It’s helped, too, that Schroder and Grant Williams have routinely answered the call when thrust into starting role due to injuries to the first group.
The Schroder-Smart-Tatum-Grant Williams-Al Horford quintet has now played a team-high 82 minutes together this season and owns an offensive rating of 119.1. That’d be the highest mark in the league by nearly three points if maintained.
The Celtics have to find a way for their preferred starting five to play to that same level when Brown returns. Especially because the team has found great success with an early sub lineup that features Schroder and Josh Richardson alongside Smart, Tatum, and Robert Williams. That group has an offensive rating of 131.6 and a net rating of plus-43.5 in 38 minutes.
Freedom has helped Boston’s reserve pairings recently, too, both with his ability to fetch second-chance opportunities and his screen setting. The Freedom/Grant Williams duo is Boston’s best offensive pairing with at least 30 minutes together (123.9 offensive rating in 75 minutes). In fact, Freedom is part of six of Boston’s top seven best two-man pairings with at least 30 minutes together.
Bottom Line: Jury still out ... but progress
We’re going to need a larger sample to know if Boston’s offensive explosion is sustainable, or simply fool’s gold. The Celtics play two of the NBA’s top five defenses in the next three games in the Clippers and Suns. The top-ranked Warriors visit the following week.
The challenges are coming -- well, not the Lakers and their nursing-home defense -- but we’ll know soon if the Celtics can harness the offensive strides we saw this past weekend.