The average NFL game includes 154 distinct games divided between offense, defense, and special teams. An average NBA game has about 100 offensive possessions per team or 200 total possessions.
Although the number of “plays” is more or less the same in a game of soccer and a game of basketball, we think about and consume sports in vastly different ways. Basketball is a game of running, flow, fluidity, and momentum, where hand possession is constantly changing as dictated by the relentless metronome of the 24-second clock. Football is a game of stop and start where each game lasts an average of four violent and explosive seconds before each team regroups to plan their next move.
The ultimate goal is for 2023 Boston Celtics No less than to claim the franchise’s 18th Larry O’Brien Trophy. With such a lofty goal, the margin for error becomes so slim that the team has to snatch every last ounce from every possession. In a sense, the Celtics need to dig into their core habits to the point where they can elevate a football player’s focus from playing through to fluidizing a series of possessions in a basketball game.
With that mindset as a guide, let’s explore one small area of focus each rotational player (and coach) can improve on to help the Celtics win by the margins and bring home the 18-banner.
Marcus Smart: Keep your spin-assist ratio above 3:1. Smart currently has a 3.2 A/TO ratio, which ranks 14th in the league. Anything over 3.0 is good for a top 20 ranking at the moment (Derek White is also at 3.2, albeit an order of magnitude lower, for comparison’s sake). Smart’s A/TO ratio was 2.5, 2.8, and 2.5 the three seasons prior to this season; Thus, if he can keep his current 3s low, it will represent a significant step forward in his ability to create quality shots for teammates with a basketball rating.
Derrick White – Increase FGA losses to 7 or more per game. Derrick White is a great teammate, selfless, and error-oriented. The Celtics are at their best when White is aggressive to create for himself as well as others as he takes the pressure off the Jays offensively. In losses this year, White has a 6.3 FGA per game and averages 6.4 points on a . 436 true shooting percentage. In wins, White has a 7.9 FGA per game with an average of 11.2 points on a real shooting percentage of 0.644.
One might be tempted to say, “Great! Finally, a player who is aware of himself and shoots more when he makes it and less when he doesn’t.” But the NBA Playoffs It is all about scouting report and margins. Currently, the reconnaissance report on White will read that he stopped shooting if he missed it early. White has to look good no matter how games start in order to shift his scouting and convince other teams in the league that he needs a guard on the perimeter every game night.
Jaylen Brown – Improved 3p% to 36+%. I was expecting to target brown shifts. While he averaged a career-high 3.1 turnover per game, his turnover rate is very much in line with his career average, which means his turnover jump is mostly a product of his increased utilization rate. Instead, let’s focus on his career low .329 3PT% (down even from .341% in his rookie year when he “couldn’t shoot”). With the Celtics’ free-flowing offense frequently generating 3 quality appearances, it’s only fair to expect something in line with his .369 career average. As the Celtics move into the second half of their season, Brown will benefit from being wiser in his shooting selection from the 3.
Jayson Tatum – Average over 9 FTAs per game and finish in the top 5 in FTA per game. Tatum currently ranks eighth in the NBA in FTA-per-game average of 8.4 with MVP candidates like Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.9), Joel Embiid (11.6) and Luka Doncic (11.3) rounding out the top three. All 5-10 points average between 8 and 9 FTA per game. Tatum has made steady progression year after year in this statistic, going from 3.2 to 2.9 to 4.7 to 5.3 to 6.2 to 8.4, reflecting his evolution from smaller role player to first choice to All-Star to NBA to serious MVP candidate. Maintaining and building on his FTA rate will allow Tatum to carry a consistent scoring resource that he can count on going into the playoffs.
Al Horford – Increased paint shots during playoffs. Horford’s current shot profile is as follows: 71/161 from the 3rd (44%), 4-for-13 from the middle range (31%), and 48-76 (63%) from the 10-and-in. That means 161/250 (64%) of Horford’s shots have come from 3 this season. While there’s no reason for Horford to change this shot during the regular season (as the main goal should be to limit the wear and tear on his 36-year-old’s body), he should be ready to ramp up his paint production in the playoffs to closer to a 50/50 shot profile. 50 to take advantage of switching defenses that rally the Jays and leave a defensive responsibility on Horford at the post.
Rob Williams – Increase your shot-creation responsibilities as a passer outside the high position. Anyone who watches the Celtics on a regular basis is aware of Rob’s flashes of top-level fleeting vision. If these Flashes can become a more consistent staple in his game and the Celtics offense, the roof goes up for both the player and the team. Rob’s career assist percentage is 10.5 (9.4 this season) while Horford’s career assist percentage (generally considered one of the best in the league) is 16.5. Nobody expects Rob to reach the level of Horford as a pitcher overnight, but it would be wise for Rob to incorporate him as a facilitator in the regular season to prepare for the post-season crucible. Robb will be the only non-shooter in the Celtics’ 8-man playoff tournament. If he can create off-the-elbow appearances consistently, that will add depth and variety to the Celtics’ offensive toolbox.
Malcolm Brogdon – Be prepared to overload the minutes in the postseason. Let’s keep it simple with Brogdon. He accepted a smaller role off the regular season bench in Boston with aplomb (career low 23.4 minutes per game, 7th on the team) by posting a career high in true shooting percentage (. 627). The Celtics wisely take a long look at Brogdon, who is the team’s third-leading scorer after Jay. All Brogdon needs to do is take advantage of this long-term plan, increase his qualifying minutes load to the 28-30 range, and leave the gas in the tank to produce at a high level in May and June.
Grant Williams – Improve the composure of officials. We’ll go with a non-statistical target for Grant. By their own admission, one of the Celtics’ shortcomings during last year’s playoff run was a tendency to lose their cool with management during key stretches of games and having that loss of cool seep into the quality of their play. While Grant is not Celtic’s only culprit for the rampant complaining, he is the easiest player to target to swing Celtic into a more emotionally cohesive side.
The Celtics need a critical mass of players who have a mature mindset for their next play. Currently, White, Horford, Rob and Brogdon are players who fit this bill. Dealing with officials is not a major part of their DNA. Like it or not, as Celtics stars Tatum and Brown will be in constant dialogue with officials as they work to receive the calls they need to succeed. All-star players in the NBA today are constantly running umpires. Intelligence is smart. He’s the team’s emotional heartbeat, reigning NBA DPOY, one of the most physical Sterling players in the league, and a defensive technician who constantly treads the thin edge between foul play and great defensive play. He will always have a dialogue with the officials and he has earned that right.
Then there is Grant. He is the eighth man on the Celtics. He is whip smart and team oriented. It’s time for him to grow up and realize that, for him, the juice just isn’t worth it when it comes to complaining to the officials. Tatum and Brown need those free throw attempts. Smart needs this physical margin. Grant must be calm.
Technical Director Joe Mazzola – Start trying Steve Curry’s football screen covers now. It may not be Steve. It could be Luca or Ja Morant. It could be Donovan Mitchell or Kyrie Irving at ECF. But, at the end of the day, many high-powered games in the NBA will come down to an elite offensive talent who receives a high-ball screen and goes to work.
Defensively, would you switch? Are you cornered? Do you hedge and recover? Will you fall and chase the top? Each option has its pros and cons and a lot depends on the abilities of your defensive personnel, but preparation should start now. Game 7. The Celtics are up by 1 with 10 seconds left on the clock. Curry dribbled to the floor with his clever guarding. Draymond Green runs off to set a high-ball screen with Thompson, Poole and Wiggins spaced out on the floor. What screen coverage does the Celtics have and why? Mazola must sleep and wake up with that question on his mind every day for the next six months.