10 Promising Trends from Boston's First 10 Games
The Boston Celtics have made it through 10 games of the 2020-21 season and they couldn’t have asked for a much better start. With a 7-3 record, Boston sits atop the Eastern Conference, is tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the fewest losses in the NBA, and is riding a league-best four-game winning streak.
As for how the Celtics have started off so hot, it’s largely due to these 10 promising trends that they have been displayed thus far.
1. The Scoring Jays
Coming off of career seasons in 2019-20, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have both somehow found a way to take their respective games to an even higher level. Due to the offseason departure of Gordon Hayward and the ongoing rehab of Kemba Walker, both Jays have had to take on a heavier scoring load, and they have not disappointed. At this moment, they both rank among the top 12 scorers in the league, with Tatum contributing 26.9 points per game and Brown providing 26.3 PPG. They are also just the third pair of teammates in the last 20 seasons to each log 250-plus points in their team’s first 10 games, joining Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant (2001-02), and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (2016-19). That’s some elite company for a pair of sub-25-year-olds to be among.
2. Pritchard’s Surprise Emergence
The Jays providing a scoring boost has been no surprise, but the emergence of Payton Pritchard most certainly has been. The rookie point guard was handed a significant bench role right off the bat, and he’s played like a veteran so far. The 26th overall pick of the 2020 Draft has proven to be one of the most well-rounded rookies of his class. Through Boston’s most recent game on Jan. 8, he ranked fifth in points scored and field-goal makes, third in assists, second in steals, and sixth in blocked shots among all first-year players. Such solid all-around play has garnered Pritchard plenty of trust early on, proven by the fact that the team has closed out its last four games – all wins – with him on the floor. And he even single-handedly delivered one of those wins with a game-winning put-back against Miami last week.
3. Kemba’s Leadership from the Sideline
The main reason why Pritchard has been given so much playing time right out of the gate is that Kemba Walker is still strengthening his left knee after undergoing an offseason stem cell injection. Fortunately, Boston’s All-Star point guard could return to the lineup at any day. Friday evening, the team announced that Walker had been cleared to practice and Stevens went on to say that the 10-year vet has not experienced any pain for upward of a couple of months. Getting Walker back would help to alleviate a great deal of pressure off of both Brown and Tatum, giving the Celtics another elite scoring option to help carry their offense. In the meantime, Walker is able to contribute with his vocal leadership from the sideline. “He has a big impact on us because he's the guy that's totally all in,” coach Brad Stevens said of Walker following the team’s most recent win over Washington. “He just builds others up.”
4. Smart’s Success as Primary PG
One of the benefits of having Walker sidelined is that it has allowed Marcus Smart to blossom as the team’s primary playmaker. Smart has played a career-high 78 percent of his minutes at point guard, after playing just 23 percent at the position last season and only eight percent the season before. He has been the Boston’s top facilitator, dishing out a career-high 6.6 assists per game. He’s done so while committing only 1.8 turnovers per game, giving him the fifth-best assist-to-turnover ratio among the top 15 assisters in the NBA. Tatum credits Smart for much of Boston’s early success: “He's been running the team. Starting point, making sure that we're in our spots, and just making sure we organize. And he's been doing a really good job at it.”
5. Cleaning the Offensive Glass
Remember when offensive rebounding was a need for the Boston Celtics? Well, such is no longer the case. Two seasons ago, the Celtics ranked 20th in the NBA in offensive boards per game. This season, they rank fourth in the league with 11.6 offensive rebounds per game and third in offensive rebounding percentage with a 30.3 percent clip. Newcomer Tristan Thompson has played a key role in that department, pulling down 3.1 offensive rebounds per game. If he keeps it up, he’ll become just the third Celtics player in the last 23 seasons to average at least three offensive boards per game.
6. Draining from Deep
What makes Boston’s offensive rebounding numbers even more impressive is the fact that they are pulling down so many boards on that end of the floor despite being one of the most efficient shooting teams. The Celtics are currently shooting 48.0 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from 3-point range, which places them sixth and fourth in those departments, respectively, among all 30 teams. The one shooting area where they can improve is at the free-throw line, where they have converted just 75 percent of their shots to rank 19th in the league. That number should rise, however, after the return of Walker, who made 86.4 percent of his freebies last season.
7. Semi-Automatic from 3
One of the most feel-good trends from the first 10 games has been Semi Ojeleye’s reliability as a 3-point shooter. Over the last four seasons, there has not been a harder worker on this team than Ojeleye, and his persistence is paying off judging by his team-best offensive rating of 119.3. Over the last four games, Ojeleye has connected on 9-of-20 from beyond the arc. Only Brown and Tatum have sank more triples during that same span. Ojeleye is shooting 40.7 percent from long range this season, and 42.6 percent from deep dating back to last season’s All-Star break. For a team in need of bench scoring, Ojeleye has certainly done his part to contribute, while also providing strong perimeter defense on the other end of the floor.
8. Boston Ball-Hawks
Speaking of lockdown defense, the Celtics have been one of the best ball-hawking teams in the NBA of late. They are currently fourth in the league with 9.1 steals per game, largely thanks to the sneakiness of Brown, Pritchard, Smart and Jeff Teague. Through Boston’s most recent game on Jan. 8, those four guards were ranked among the top 25 in total steals. Brown leads that group and ranks second in the league with 17 steals.
9. Celtics Swat Team
Not only have the Celtics done a solid job disrupting offenses on the perimeter, but they have also been terrific at protecting the rim. Boston has swatted an average of 6.6 shots per game, placing them fourth in the league in that department. This has been an area in which the Celtics have seen steady improvement over the last five seasons. In 2016-17, they ranked 23rd in the NBA with 4.1 blocks per game and have since increased both their average and league ranking year after year. What makes Boston’s current ranking astounding is that it is the shortest team in the NBA, and what makes it even more incredible is that its lone 7-foot-5 outlier, Tacko Fall, has barely played. So they are racking up elite interior numbers despite having by far the smallest team in the league.
10. Rob on the Rise
As for why Boston has done so well protecting the rim, that has a lot to do with the continued development of Robert Williams. The third-year center leads the team with 1.5 blocks per game despite playing only 16.4 minutes per contest, and he has the most total blocks on the team despite ranking 10th in total minutes played. Williams is also racking up rebounds like crazy, averaging 6.5 boards per game. On a per-36-minute bases, he’s averaging team-best marks of 14.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks to go along with 14.8 points. Williams’ offensive efficiency has also been outstanding, as he is leading the league in field goal percentage (min. 30 total attempts) with a clip of 77.4 percent. If he keeps that up, he’ll break Mitchell Robinson’s NBA record of 74.1 percent set last season.