"Defense Wins Championships": Are the Celtics a Championship Contender?
The Boston Celtics had a sluggish start to the season, entering 2022 with a disappointing 17-19 record and causing restless fans to demand major changes like trading Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart. However, Brad Stevens remained patient and the Celtics have finally hit their stride, entering the all-star break winning nine of their last ten games and sitting with a 34-26 record, good for sixth in the East. With 22 games left in the season, have the Celtics emerged as a true contender, or are they due for another early exit?
Why the Celtics are Legit
Since New Year's Eve, the Celtics have been the best defensive team in the NBA, an identity that first-year head coach Ime Udoka wanted to establish from day one. On the season, the Celtics are second in the NBA in defensive rating (104.9) and defensive efficiency (1.023), and they hold opponents to a league-low 42.9% field goal percentage. While Udoka received a lot of criticism at the beginning of the year, his switch-heavy defensive scheme has been a key reason for Boston's defensive success. With a collection of elite wing defenders and mobile big men, the Celtics have finally begun to execute the switching defense at a high level. In addition, Udoka's unique defensive decision to frequently match Robert Williams up with a wing away from the ball has helped the Celtics thrive on defense as Williams has been able to more freely roam the paint rather than exclusively sticking with opposing big men. Even playing on the perimeter, Williams has an other-worldly ability to close out and block shots with his 7'6 wingspan and incredible vertical. In Williams' last 11 games, opponents are shooting just 36.3% against him, 11.1% below the players' expected field goal percentage. At the rim, with Williams nearby, opponents have made just 51% of their shots, eighth-lowest among all players who challenge at least three such shots per game. Robert Williams' development as an elite shot blocker and intimidating defensive presence has been a key reason for Boston's success.
The Celtics' starting lineup has allowed an absurd 88.8 points per 100 possessions, best in the NBA among lineups with over 100 minutes. The lineup also has the league's best net rating (26.5) among all lineups with at least 250 minutes together. Aside from Robert Williams and the stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, veterans Al Horford and Marcus Smart have anchored the defense. The Celtics have an incredible 83.6 defensive rating when Smart and Horford share the court since Smart returned from injury on January 23rd. While the starting lineup is an elite group, the closing lineup may be even better. After acquiring Derrick White at the trade deadline, a top-20 defender by most advanced metrics, Boston's closing lineup of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams has been an impenetrable unit.
While Derrick White headlined the Celtics' trade deadline moves, the Daniel Theis acquisition should not be overlooked. Adding Theis brings in another versatile big men alongside Robert Williams, Al Horford, and Grant Williams, and he will fit in perfectly to Udoka's defensive scheme. Having four reliable big men with diverse skill-sets provides Udoka a lot more freedom to mix-and-match different lineups.
On offense, Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka made ball movement a point of emphasis from the beginning of the year. However, that didn't happen right away as the Celtics looked like a stagnant, discombobulated offense just like they did last season. The Celtics were once again one of the bottom teams in the NBA when it came to assists, and the bulk of their offense consisted of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown playing isolation basketball. While many pinned this on Udoka, a combination of injuries to key players, new personnel, and trying to develop young players made it difficult for the offense to flow. Since shortening the rotation and moving dead weight to acquire White and Theis, the offense has looked much better. In the four games White has played for the Celtics, Boston holds a 65.7% assist percentage, 6.2% higher than the Celtics assist percentage for the season (59.5%, 16th in the NBA). The Celtics' offense has been clicking since the new year, ranking 8th in assists over their last 15 games, a number that figures to keep climbing as the Celtics gain more chemistry with their current rotation.
What Could Hold the Celtics Back
While the Celtics have looked like world-beaters recently, they still have some concerns that could hold them back, especially against elite competition in the East. One glaring issue is their inconsistency from three. Even with Grant Williams' emergence as an elite three-point shooter, shooting a whopping 44.6% from three (3rd in the NBA), the Celtics are just 21st in the NBA in three-point percentage as a team (34.4%). While there are nights where they shoot the lights out, like when they recently shot 25/45 (55.6%) from three against the 76ers, they also have nightmare games like when they shot 4/42 (9.5%) from three against the Clippers earlier in the year. The Celtics hope that Derrick White will help solve their shooting issues, but he's shot just 6/26 (23.1%) on threes in four games for the Celtics. With open roster spots, the Celtics may look to the buyout market for some more wing depth and shooting, potentially targeting players like Gary Harris or Kent Bazemore if they get bought out.
Another concern the Celtics still have is their inability to win close games. Most recently, the Celtics failed to close out the 13-45 Detroit Pistons and entered the all-star break with a loss rather than a 10-game win streak. In "clutch games", games where the score is within five points in the final five minutes, the Celtics have a -7.1 net rating and a winning percentage of just .379. In crunch time, they have a dreadful 101 offensive rating and an assist percentage of just 49.5%. The Celtics will need to fix their tendency to become stagnant on offense, especially down the stretch of close games. In the past two months, the Celtics are still just 5-4 in clutch games and their crunch-time offensive rating has remained poor at 101.1, but the crunch-time net rating has improved to +2.1. Although they have one of the league's top defenses, the Celtics' 110.3 overall offensive rating (18th in the NBA), may not be enough to make them contenders.
The Celtics have a +5.1 point differential per 100 possessions, fifth-best in the NBA, and they hold a 14-12 record against teams over .500, the only team in the East with a winning record against such teams. However, the frustrating part is that the point differential projects the Celtics to be a 39-21 team, which would put them atop the East. They've let a lot of close games slip, especially winnable games against sub .500 teams. If the Celtics want to contend, they'll need to tighten up and close these games out as the season winds down and every game matters.
The Celtics are an elite defensive team, but their current offense is below-par when talking about championship contending teams. Does defense really win championships? Let's take a look at the Finals matchups in the past five years and examine where each team ranked in terms of offensive and defensive rating during the regular season.
2021 -- Bucks: 4th OFF / 9th DEF vs Suns: 7th OFF / 6th DEF
2020 -- Lakers: 11th OFF / 3rd DEF vs Heat: 7th OFF / 7th DEF
2019 -- Raptors: 5th OFF / 5th DEF vs Warriors: 1st OFF / 13th DEF
2018 -- Warriors: 3rd OFF / 11th DEF vs Cavaliers: 5th OFF / 29th DEF
2017 -- Warriors: 1st OFF / 2nd DEF vs Cavaliers: 3rd OFF / 21st DEF
Based on recent years, it would seem as if having an elite offense outweighs the importance of having an elite defense. In fact, every Finals team since 2011 has had a top-10 offensive rating during the regular season except for the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers, who finished 11th in that category.
If the Celtics want to contend for a championship, they will need to improve upon their 18th-ranked offense, especially when closing games out. This starts with ball movement, and the acquisition of Derrick White has already helped the offense trend in the right direction. As the Celtics gain more chemistry down the stretch, their offense should continue to improve, and the Celtics know that while they can lean on their elite defense, they will go as far as their offense can take them. Interesting enough, multiple sources like FiveThirtyEight, Basketball Reference, and ESPN project the Celtics as the favorite to represent the East in the Finals, even with powerhouses like Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Miami looming. The Celtics still have work to do, but they certainly have the pieces in place to make a serious run at Banner #18.