How the Celtics are Competing for a Playoff Spot

Despite dramatic personnel turnover and what might be seen as a lack of talent, Boston is competing for a playoff spot…

Earlier this week I wrote that the Boston Celtics have two of the three ingredients required to build a dynasty: a savvy front office and elite coaching. Danny Ainge has positioned the Celtics with an absurd amount of draft picks in addition to financial flexibility when the cap rises in 2016-2017. Brad Stevens, just 38 years old, does what great coaches do. Like Gregg Popovich, he commands respect within the locker room but also knows his X’s and O’s. Most coaches do only one or the other, or do one significantly better than the other. But Stevens has shown he can do both, and, what’s perhaps most impressive, is that he has this team positioned to make the playoffs now. How is he doing it?

Boston has won five of its last six games, and nearly pulled off a miracle in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. They’ve done this despite newly acquired Isaiah Thomas missing significant time. They’ve accomplished this stretch primarily through two ways, one of which has been a staple of this team—despite its roster fluctuations—all season, which might mean it’s a consistent part of Brad Stevens’s scheme, and the other of which is a newly emerging facet of Boston’s game.

The first is sharing the basketball. The Celtics are fourth in the league in assists, averaging 24.4, and check out the other teams in the top 10 in order: Golden State, Atlanta, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio, Washington, Milwaukee, Dallas, Portland and Houston. That’s an elite group to be named with. At least half of those teams could be considered legitimate title contenders, and all of them are currently in the playoffs if the postseason started today.

What’s really interesting about their assist totals, however, is that even after trading Rajon Rondo—currently fifth in the league in assists per game—the Celtics have continued sharing the basketball. In other words, the statistic is not dependent on Rondo only. It’s a part of the offensive scheme. In the month of March, Boston has no player averaging six or more assists, but eight players averaging two or more—including three frontcourt players. They do this as a team.

The other way Boston has surged is with its defense. I watched the Thunder-Celtics game on Wednesday night, and although Boston allowed 122 points, they held Russell Westbrook to 8-of-26 shooting (30.7 percent) and forced seven turnovers out of the triple-double machine. It wasn’t just the numbers. With Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley there’s a defensive intensity to this backcourt unlike any other in the league. Rondo, for all his touted defensive abilities, wasn’t an above-average defender for Boston this year. Marcus Smart is. And he fits perfectly with Bradley, because his size (6’4”, 220 pounds) allows him to defend shooting guards and, if need be, even small forwards. He did a heck of a job on Westbrook.

For the year, Boston is in the bottom third of the league in opponents’ points per game, allowing over 100 points. Over their last six wins, however, they’ve held their opponents to 91 points per game. That’s dramatic, significant improvement, and even though the sample size is relatively small, it’s also large enough to show some sustained patterns. I.e., it’s not like I’m taking two games out of their season and claiming there’s a trend. I’m still wary of their improvement, and how consistent they can be on the defensive side of the basketball, but things seem to be clicking for Boston.

Ainge and Stevens know that, even if they do make the postseason this year, there’s more or less no chance they’ll make a title run. What they do know, however, is that the chance to compete in the playoffs gives invaluable, intangible experience to these young players who might be the foundation of a future dynasty. Boston may lack a superstar, but they’re putting the pieces together as we speak. And the more experience those pieces get, the more dangerous they’ll be in years to come.

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