The Boston Celtics have taken huge strides this season, but Wednesday’s blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers proved they’re ways away from contending in the Eastern Conference.
Head coach Brad Stevens has established himself as one of the bright young minds in the league. Since the Boston Celtics hired him, they’ve been one of the scrappiest and most well-coached teams in the NBA. They epitomize the hard-nosed history of the C’s franchise. They’re not glamorous, and that’s usually the case when you have a single star player. That said, the Celtics’ lack of offensive threats will be their downfall come the postseason.
Isaiah Thomas has been incredible all season long, as he’s averaging 29.1 points per game with an effective field goal rate of 54.6 percent. As every announcer, for I would assume every Celtics game has clearly stated, those are incredible numbers for a guy who is 5-9. He was also leading the league for most of the season in fourth quarter points, with 9.8 per night. That’s just 0.1 behind the new leader in Russell Westbrook, who is averaging 1.4 more attempts with 7.3 (per nba.com).
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Nonetheless, the Celtics don’t have many options other than the “King in the Fourth” to go to for buckets in the key stretches of games. The next leading scorer on the C’s is Avery Bradley with 16.4 points per game, followed by Al Horford, who has been a great addition this year with 13.9 points and 6.9 boards per contest. He’s also leading all NBA centers in assists with five a night.
The problem is the style the Celtics play to get their offensive production. Bradley has come a long way with his offensive skill set, and he’s a huge reason why Boston is fourth in the league in three-pointers made per game (per teamrankings.com). He’s shooting 39.8 percent from deep and making a career-high 2.0 per game. However, he still has an offensive box plus-minus of -0.2 (per Basketball Reference), and that’s because his game can length can neutralize his game.
The problem is, he’s still not very reliable at attacking off the dribble and only shoots 36.2 percent on shots 3-10 ten from the basket. J.R. Smith was all over him Wednesday night, and even when he did get free on a great in-bounds play, Smith’s length accounted for a rejection.
This kind of thing was very telling about what might happen to the C’s in a potential playoff series. Bradley was 1-for-8 from the field on the night in a 114-91 loss, and a lot of the credit goes to Smith being glued to him which prevented quality catch-and-shoot looks that are Bradley’s bread-and-butter.
He did not make a three, and Boston shot only 21.2 percent as a team from deep in that one. Cleveland didn’t do much better at 30.6 percent, but they destroyed the C’s in the paint because of their arsenal of offensive weapons. Oh, and that LeBron James guy — he’s pretty good. James silenced the Boston faithful all game, to the tune of 36 points and a plus-minus of plus-31. The Celtics could not keep up with the Cavs offensively to give themselves a fighting chance. It wasn’t the fault of Stevens.
The C’s can occasionally get in offensive droughts against the better teams in the league, and that’s a concern; they don’t have a consistent inside offensive presence they can go to. Outside of Horford, they don’t have big men who can go in the post and score when they need it most. I wouldn’t consider Kelly Olynyk a player who teams need to “game plan” for, let alone double-team on the catch. Horford is one of their primary playmakers too, and it’s a lot of responsibility for a guy who is not the most durable big in the world.
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Horford has been injury-prone in the past, and he’s only played in 64 games this year. Thomas is usually the only guy who makes things happen for their other shooters with dribble drives, and in a seven-game series against teams with size and stoppers on the perimeter (a la the Cavs and Toronto Raptors), that’s taxing for a guy who is also your go-to scorer at 5-9. They corralled him in the paint, and it allowed for trailers to often get back in the play. Thomas was frustrated all game and had four turnovers.
Granted, Marcus Smart can make some plays happen in pick-and-roll situations, but his lack of an outside shot doesn’t strike much fear in opposing defenses to cause them to over-commit.
Smart is putting up 10.5 points per game and is one of the tougher perimeter defenders in the league, but he’s a liability against the upper echelon teams in the Association. The bottom line is he is shooting a team-low 35.8 percent and has an offensive box plus-minus of -1.5 (per Basketball Reference).
Therefore, defenses won’t collapse as much as they would with Thomas and with the lack of guys who can create their own shot on the perimeter, it makes Smart’s playmaking limited as a result. His player efficiency rating is well below league average at just 11.6. He’s also had a career-low with just 0.1 offensive win shares this season while playing in more games than both of his first two seasons in the league.
The way the C’s are currently constructed means they are reliant on Thomas and their stingy defense to keep teams in check. That said, they need to get big production from bench players such as wing defender and three-point shooter Jae Crowder to get through the East and even get to the defending champs.
Honestly, with their lack of quality playoff experience, they might have some trouble even in the first round.
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Looking past that, they would likely have either the Raptors or Washington Wizards. Both of those teams have dynamic guards who can both score and make things happen for many perimeter shooters. Also, the Raptors have one of the better benches in the league, with a net rating of plus-5.5.
For the Celtics to have to rely on youngsters such as Jaylen Brown to defend players the likes of Demar DeRozan and Bradley Beal and then also score at the other end seems hard to fathom. DeRozan lit the Celtics up in their last meeting with a career-high 43 points in a 107-97 Toronto win, and now the Raptors got a huge lift with Kyle Lowry back in the lineup.
In the playoffs, teams try to do all they can to take away your first offensive option, and your bench and other complementary scorers have to deliver. The way Boston relies on Thomas to do everything at 5-9, I just don’t see them being able to compete with the other top teams in the East.
They don’t have enough firepower on a consistent basis offensively to beat a team like Toronto, who is third in the NBA in offensive rating (109.1), and Washington who is third in the league in converting points off turnovers (18.0). Both of those squads are above Boston in offensive efficiency as well at sixth and eighth, respectively.
The real story is this: Boston’s record against the other top-three teams in the East is 4-8, according to ESPN’s Chris Forsberg. Cleveland destroyed them on the boards the othe day (51-38) without rebounding maniac Tristan Thompson even playing, and they had no chance. Getting pummeled on the boards has been an issue all season as Boston is just 27th in the league in rebounding. That’s a major concern during the playoffs in the East, which can tend to be lower scoring and more of a halfcourt game.
Their lack of size and shot-blocking outside of Amir Johnson is yet another reason I don’t think Boston gets out of the second round of the playoffs. You could see the inside dominance from the jump a few days ago, as LeBron just pummeled them inside starting in the second quarter.
This team should have traded for either Paul George or Jimmy Butler to help their scoring production against great teams because they are so handicapped with just Thomas’ potential to erupt for huge nights. We’ll see if they can potentially acquire either of the names above this offseason, but Danny Ainge hasn’t seemed to figure out that by the time this young core fully develops, IT may be out of his prime.
With the Celtics possibly drafting Markelle Fultz, the IT situation could be shaken up. They’re going to have to do something soon if they’re going to challenge the King among others for Eastern Conference supremacy.
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