The Boston Celtics seem to be better when they are missing players due to injury. Is the Boston Celtics depth a big advantage?
In the midst of the longest active winning streak in the NBA, at seven games, the ‘Hospital’ Celtics have officially cemented their place in Celtics folklore.
Following an overtime thriller in the nation’s capital, the Celtics have successfully extended their win streak to 7 games, the longest active win streak across the entire association. Since win number 1 on November 26th, a blowout road victory against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Celtics have been able to string together win after win, sometimes in convincing fashion and other times by Kyrie Irving just being Kyrie Irving.
The win streak started in convincing fashion after implementing both Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris and has continued with no real end in sight as the Celtics next three games all come against teams with a .500 record or worse.
The most shocking part of this win streak is that it has been done with players going in and out of the lineup – Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Aron Baynes are all players that have missed significant time during this stretch of games. It has almost become an ongoing joke that the Celtics get better when they resort to the end of their bench for critical minutes, but there happens to be some truth behind it.
Last year, the Celtics started the season with high expectations, until minutes into the game, Hayward’s season was lost. It was after that that the Celtics pulled off a seemingly improbably 16-game win streak. Once again, towards the end of the season when Kyrie Irving was officially shut down for the entirety of the playoffs, the Celtics did the impossible and came one game short of the NBA finals. So what is the mystery behind this phenomenon? Are the Celtics incapable of playing as heavy favorites? Do the Celtics need to carry a chip on their shoulder to succeed?
The truth is, when the Celtics have fewer mouths to feed, they run a much more organized and simplified version of their offense in which the team excels. With players like Hayward, Brown, and Horford out, you are taking away skilled players who require their fair share of touches on the ball to be truly effective. With those players out, the offense can run at a much slower, yet methodical pace.
A ball handler or two setting up the offense and dictating the pace, Irving, and Smart. A wing player coming off screens, attacking holes and finding their open shot, Jayson Tatum. And a big who can play through the post, find open men from that position, and when need be, be able to score in isolation. We saw it during the playoffs last year with a lot of the offense running through Al Horford on the lower blocks. This time we are seeing it with a lot of the offense being run through Marcus Morris on the high post.
Morris posted a game-high 31 points against the Pelicans, shooting the ball at an efficient 67%. On the season, Morris is averaging career highs across the board, 14.9 points per game, 49.5% from the field, and a robust 42.3% from beyond the arc. During this win streak alone, Morris is averaging 18.6 points per game and shooting 50.9% from the field. His impact goes beyond the box score, as he is becoming a more lethal scorer, he is also drawing second defenders, and finding his teammates in desirable scoring situations.
A hidden element of the success behind the ‘Hospital’ Celtics is how patient their offense has been. During their win streak, the Celtics rank 23rd in PACE while they are 1st in assist to turnover percentage. Thus, the game has been slowing down for the Celtics, creating a much more efficient, meticulous offense. Slowing down and getting into their offensive sets has done wonders for the Celtics’ offense: they are 1st in effective field goal percentage, 1st in true shooting, and 1st in offensive rating over this seven-game period.
A huge part of their recent offensive success, apart from running through Morris in the high post, has been running Tatum through a series of screens to get him one-on-one matchups on the wing.
Simple off-ball screens like this have been a huge recipe of Tatum’s success in the past. When Tatum is a focal point of the offense, the Celtics often look to find him off of a screen going downhill. Tatum is talented enough of a player that slight separation will lead to him finding an open shot or drawing away the second defender and finding an open man.
The same can be said with the ball handlers, Rozier and Irving specifically. When the offense slows down, Rozier and Irving are put into designed plays where they come off of off-ball screens at the top of the arc. Both Irving and Rozier possess the ability to knock down threes at a high rate which gives them the option to either let it fly or use their momentum and drive to the paint to either finish or dump it off to the open man.
For a team that is so talented from top to bottom, especially a team that preaches depth, it is odd that they suddenly become more efficient when there are fewer mouths to feed. When they lose players like Hayward and Brown, they lose what makes them a bonified contender, yet they play a simpler brand of basketball which has led to a more potent offense.
The main concern that has plagued the Celtics so far this season has been trying to find adequate touches for each player on the offense. With Hayward and Brown seemingly accepting their temporary roles off the bench, there is no reason to think that this success will not continue.
During this stretch the Celtics have gone back to the simple offensive sets that have proven to be unguardable throughout the 2017-18 playoffs: off-ball screens on the wing to Tatum, running the offense through Morris in the high post, and top of the arc screens for Irving and Rozier. It has been a recipe for success in the past and has been crucial during this seven-game run.
The interesting part remains how do the Celtics run their offense when all players are back and healthy. Does Brad Stevens run the same plays for Hayward as he has been doing for Tatum? Does Morris stay in the starting lineup or does he go back to a role he’s more accustomed to coming off the bench?
Whatever route the Celtics do choose to take, they have the talent and the aptitude for a championship run. Until then, look for the Celtics to continue slowing down the offense and running the ball through Morris, Tatum, and Irving. The Celtics needed a stretch against weaker competition to figure out how to be efficient on both ends of the court, which is what they got. There is no clear end in sight to this win streak, and with the way they have been playing, there are few indications that many teams have the capacity to stop them.