How the Boston Celtics will Score without Irving in the Playoffs

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 03: Kyrie Irving
HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 03: Kyrie Irving /

The Boston Celtics might struggle to score points in the playoffs.

When Gordon Hayward went down five minutes into the season, Boston’s championship hopes were essentially dashed. Celtics fans had hope – Kyrie Irving was as great as expected, Jayson Tatum was better than anyone expected, Al Horford was playing the best defense of his career. Even without Hayward, Boston has looked like the best team in the East for stretches of the season.

Getting through Golden State or Houston, though? It seemed out of reach even in the best of times. Boston is set up to contend for titles for years to come, but without its 127 million dollar free agent acquisition, expectations were greatly diminished. The vibe among the realistic has been “hey, let’s see how far Irving and the kiddos can take us, it’ll be fun.”

With the news that Kyrie Irving is out for the season, including the playoffs, the expectations change yet again. Is this team a serious threat to get to the conference finals? Are they even going to make it past the first round?

On the offensive end, everything changes without Irving. His usage rate, per Cleaning the Glass, is 31.8%, which leads the team by far (next closest is Greg Monroe at 25.1%, which isn’t really a fair comparison because he doesn’t create offense in the sense that Irving does and largely plays with the bench unit; the next closest after Monroe is Marcus Smart at 21.4%).

Here’s a look at the type of shots that Boston’s offense generates, and how many points per possession they create out of those shots.

Shot Type% of Total OffensePPP
Spot-up21.1% (11th in NBA)1.06 (2nd in NBA)
Pick & Roll, Ballhandler15.0% (23rd)0.90 (5th)
Transition14.1% (18th)1.03 (28th)
Post-up7.8% (8th)0.83 (22nd)
Isolation8.6% (6th)0.93 (6th)
Pick & Roll, Roll Man6.6% (15th)1.08 (14th)
Cuts5.8% (26th)1.22 (23rd)
Off Screens5.4% (15th)1.12 (4th)
Handoffs5.3% (8th)0.91 (17th)
Putbacks4.3% (25th)1.02 (29th)

First of all, bear in mind that these stats (gathered from are cumulative from the entire season. With all of Boston’s injuries, it’s tough to pinpoint what its “normal” offense looks like. This does provide some insight, though.

For one, we can see that Boston likes taking spot-up shots and hits them at a fantastic rate, tied for second in the league in spot-up points per possession (behind the Cleveland Cavaliers). Apart from the isolation buckets (which have largely been thanks to Irving, so that goes out the window now), that has been their only reliable way of scoring all season.

Losing Irving hurts them in multiple regards here. He is both their most feared scorer and their primary creator. Without him penetrating, it’ll be tougher generating those spot-up shots. Bear in mind that Irving is a mediocre passer at best; when we say that Irving creates for teammates, it’s more about his scoring ability opening up shots for others. Marcus Smart will likely pick up much of the ballhandling duties, and while he is perhaps a more skilled floor general than Irving, he is nowhere near the threat that Irving is on or off-ball.

Boston will likely rely more on the more systematic parts of its offensive scheme. Expect more dribble handoffs in general, perhaps particularly for Marcus Morris, who excels in that playset. Al Horford is as good as they come in setting these shots up, and Greg Monroe has shown competence recently as well. Expect more of Morris running off screens (he has been lethal at 1.29 points per possession); same thing for Terry Rozier (1.20 points per possession on more attempts). Rozier has felt like a revelation at times in the past few weeks, hitting big shot after big shot to help keep the injury-riddled Celtics afloat. A big series from Rozier would go a long way towards keeping Boston’s playoff hopes alive.

Jayson Tatum, who is surprisingly inefficient off both handoffs and screens (0.66 and 0.85 PPP, respectively, compared to 1.18 PPP on spot-up shots), will probably be tasked with creating his own shot out of the pick and roll and isolation more than he has been used to. He has been a very efficient scorer for Boston so far, but with the defense keyed in on him in his first NBA playoffs, it would be surprising if he did not struggle.

It will be interesting to see what Jaylen Brown will do. 51.4% of his shot attempts have come off the catch, and 76.3% have come off two dribbles or less. It would be surprising to see Boston ask Brown to do much creating, but he has certainly flashed the ability to do so at times this season.

This is a lot of talk, and truthfully a lot of speculation; the bottom line is that Celtics, who have had a mediocre offense all season, just lost their best offensive player. They are 7.4 points worse per 100 possessions without Irving on the floor this season. Their whole model has been to keep games close with fantastic defense and then to give the ball to one of the best closers in the game, which is no longer an option. Boston has some explosive scorers and some sneaky good creators, but scoring will be a struggle for them in the playoffs. Look for them to key in on defense and attempt to scratch out some truly ugly games.