Celtics

Scorching Offense Keeps Celtics Hot to Start Season

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When the NBA’s most storied franchise seemed to run out of luck, with their west-coast foes parading again, a devastating commitment to simply outscoring opponents now places Boston three leaves over the quickly-diminishing competition.

It’s still early, but the Boston Celtics have established themselves as the favorites of the Eastern Conference. As of December 15th, Boston sits at 22-7 with the league’s best offensive and net ratings.

After coming up short last season, the Celtics look poised to be the popular favorites to win, or at least make, the NBA Finals. A franchise plagued with recent frustrating season finishes and a drama-filled offseason suddenly appears to be rising exponentially.

There are a couple of reasons behind Boston’s early-season success, but most of the Celtics’ fortunes revolve around their offense. Boston continues to shoot devastatingly on every plank of the hardwood.

At this rate, there’s a lot to like about a Boston scoring attack that continues to expose opponent defenses. If the trend persists, the Celtics will be hard to stop when the playoffs begin.

Tatum’s elevation to clear MVP favorite

This season, Jayson Tatum continues his improvement as a versatile, all-around offensive scorer and distributor. Tatum’s scoring output and efficiency, particularly, look great to begin the season at the near-30-game marker:

Tatum by the numbers

  • Career: 21.6 PPG, 46% FG on 16.7 attempts per game, 38% from three on 6.2 shots per game, and 85% free throw on 4.7 attempts per game.
  • Last season: 26.9 PPG, 45% FG on 20.6 attempts per game, 39% from three on 7.6 shots per game, and 85% free throw on 6.2 attempts per game.
  • This season: 30.2 PPG, 47% FG on 21.2 attempts per game, 36% from three on 9.3 shots per game, and 86% free throw on 8.0 attempts per game.

Two improvements are especially startling.

For starters, he improved his efficiency from two-point range, despite shouldering a larger volume. Typically, more volume correlates with a trend in declining efficiency. Tatum’s threes continue to fall around the league’s average percentage, but he’s taking a career-high 9.3 threes per game.

The following players score at least 30 points per game with 47/36/86 shooting splits: Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Tatum.

Sticking with efficiency, Tatum’s growth finishing at the rim remains his most significant improvement. He’s averaging nearly two more free throw attempts per game than his next-best season. Tatum also continues to be more reliable finishing through contact, which was a weakness earlier in his career.

Per FanDuel, Tatum ranks as the frontrunner in this season’s MVP race. The combined individual stats with team success makes a second choice increasingly improbable.

The supporting cast smashes the lights

Tatum’s growth is just one of several trends keeping the Celtics scorching hot. The other major factor is that every other player on Boston’s roster seemingly makes every shot too.

Well, almost everyone on the team. The efficiency isn’t the greatest for either Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart so far, but each continues to provide great value at the guard spots. Brown is averaging nearly 27 points per game on 50/34/81 shooting splits. He’s picked up right where he left off last season.

As for Smart, he’s averaging over 7.1 assists per game, solidifying himself as a legit two-way starter who contributes in a fantastic supporting role.

And then, the rest of the team features nothing but blazing three-point shooters. Five rotation-caliber players on the Celtics shoot above 40% from three: Malcolm Brogdon (48%), Al Horford (47%), Grant Williams (47%), Sam Hauser (43%) and Derrick White (41%).

As a result, Boston continues to outscore opponents from the field significantly. Statistically, the Celtics rank high in the most critical factors for elite offense.

Celtics’ NBA Rankings on Offense

  • Points per game: 1st (119.4 PPG)
  • Three-pointers attempted per game: 2nd (41.6 per game)
  • Three-pointers made per game: 2nd (16.3 per game)
  • Three-pointer percentage: 2nd (39% per game)
  • Two-pointer percentage: 4th  (58% per game)
  • Assists per game: 9th (26.8 per game)
  • Turnovers per game: 5th (13.7 per game)

Statistically, it’s tough — on paper — for opponents to counter Boston’s all-around elite offense. 

Can the scoring spree sustain itself?

To play devil’s advocate, there are three main concerns as the Celtics’ statistical sample size grows.

First, the indicator for regression is how blindingly hot Boston’s three-point shooters are. Nearly every major role player shoots multiple percentage points higher than their career marks. By the end of the season, Horford won’t continue to shoot 47% from downtown, considering he’s shot at least 36.1% in only three of his past five seasons (including this one).

That leads to counterpoint number two: future spacing concerns. Boston thrives with a five-out, maximum operating room type of offensive scheme. If Horford wares down, can Boston’s offense keep up the output? What about when Robert Williams returns from injury? How will he impact spacing if he’s standing underneath the basket?

Lastly, defense matters in understanding Boston’s offense to an extent. The one weird trend with this Celtics team— they don’t generate fast-break opportunities. Boston ranks 29th in steals, not forcing turnovers to create easy shots. If that keeps up and the Celtics’ efficiency regresses to the mean, that could impact the offense moving forward.

Even granting skeptics’ minor concerns, it’s hard not to take Boston seriously. For all we know, the Celtics could score their way to the NBA Finals.

Through 30 games, that possibility grows daily.

About Dominic Chiappone

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