Are the Celts Experiencing an Identity Crisis?

BOSTON – Is there an identity crisis taking place in Boston?

The basketball world has identified the Celtics with one word over the past five seasons: defense. It has been Boston’s personal wrecking ball, its M.O., its constant calling card and its driving force toward NBA championships.

Rondo, Terry, Pierce, KG

This Celtics team has displayed some serious firepower on offense.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

Defense has been the name of the game in Boston, yet the Celtics aren’t displaying much of it this season. With nearly 20 percent of the season in the books, we’d be remiss not to ask if Boston’s identity is shifting in another direction.

Doc Rivers’ team has faltered on defense this season. It ranks 23rd in the league by giving up 100.1 PPG. It ranks 27th in the league by allowing opponents to shoot 46.3 percent from the field. After 14 games, opponents have already broken the century mark seven times. How strange is that? Opponents scored in triple-digits just 11 times against the Celtics in 86 total games last season.

This Boston defense clearly isn’t up to snuff thus far. There’s no debating that. What is debatable, however, is whether the Celtics are turning into an offensively minded team.

Rivers would scoff at that idea, and for good reason. He knows that defense wins championships. But something else has to win games, right? How else would the Celtics be sitting at 8-6 on the season and right in the thick of things despite their poor defensive numbers?

The answer comes in one word: offense.

There’s a reason why Rajon Rondo is obliterating the rest of the league when it comes to assists per game. (His average of 13.7 per game is 43 percent higher than Chris Paul’s 9.6 per game, which is second in the league.) Rondo is surrounded by athletic shot-makers who are putting the ball through the basket at a very efficient rate.

Boston currently ranks ninth in the league in offensive efficiency, which defines the amount of points a team scores per 100 possessions, with a rating of 103.9. Every team ahead of the C’s in that category is considered to be a serious title contender this season.

That offensive efficiency is also being utilized more often this season than in the past. The Celtics average 94.6 possessions per game this season, which is easily their highest pace since acquiring Kevin Garnett in 2007. With guys like Chris Wilcox, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa running alongside Rondo, Boston wants to push the pace as often as possible.

With Rondo at the helm of a more up-tempo offense, Boston is breaking down defenses with ease. The Celtics rank second in the league with a field goal percentage of 47.8 percent. Eight players are shooting at least 46.3 percent from the field, including perimeter players like Rondo, Terry, Barbosa and Lee.

The scary thing is that the offense might only get better from here on out. Paul Pierce, Green and Brandon Bass have all gotten off to slow starts this season in terms of shooting the basketball. They’re all proven veterans and it’s almost a guarantee that their percentages will wind up much higher than they are right now.

Regardless of those factors, Boston’s offense is already really, really good. It’s good enough to make us wonder if this team’s identity is shaping itself around scoring points rather than preventing them.

But let’s be realistic. Anyone who knows this Celtics team understands that such is not the case. The coaching staff and players will work their tails off until Boston restores its true defensive identity.

The Celtics will continue to win games with their offense, but they’ll win a championship with their defense.

Editor's Note: This piece originally stated that the Celtics averaged a pace of 108.8 in 2007-08, per ESPN.com. The true number is 93.0. That statistical error has since been noted and removed from this story.