One Team, Three Stats: Close games push the Boston Celtics higher in the Eastern Conference

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

The Boston Celtics have taken another step forward under Brad Stevens. It’s the coach’s fourth season in Boston and the third straight in which his team has a better winning percentage than it did the season before. Under Stevens, the Celtics have gone from 25 wins to 40 to 48, and now to a pace for 51 wins by the end of the season.

Stevens has yet to win a playoff series, but the Celtics are currently the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and will certainly have home-court advantage in the first round. Though Danny Ainge didn’t “go for it” with a big trade at the deadline, Boston still has the talent and depth to make it deep in the playoffs and maybe give the Cleveland Cavaliers (who they beat last week) a scare.

But, as you will read below, this hasn’t been as much of a straight-line progression as the standings would indicate. The Celtics are a very different team than they were last season, having taken a big step forward on one end of the floor and a big step backward on the other end.

The Basics – Boston Celtics (40-24)

Pace: 98.9 (14th)

OffRtg: 108.8 (8th)

DefRtg: 105.9 (16th)

NetRtg: +2.9 (8th)

Celtics links: Team stats | Player stats | Player shooting | Lineups

Having lost five of their last eight games, the Celtics are in a dogfight with the Washington Wizards for the 2 seed. And Boston will visit the best team in the league, the Golden State Warriors, in the second game of ESPN’s Wednesday doubleheader (10:30 p.m. ET).

But after their road trips ends in Denver on Friday, the Celtics will play 11 of their final 15 games at home (where they’re 15-3 since Christmas) and 11 of their final 15 against teams that currently have losing records. After Wednesday, their only remaining road game against a team with a winning record is April 6 in Atlanta.

Here are a few numbers to know about the Celtics heading Wednesday’s meeting with the Western Conference champs…

No. 1

The Celtics are 28-14 (0.667) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, with four more “clutch” wins than any other team.

This doesn’t seem like a huge deal on the surface. The Celtics are 12-10 (0.545) in games that weren’t close down the stretch, but it’s not like they’re a bad team that has gotten ridiculously lucky with the game on the line. It’s just a different scenario than last season, when the Celtics were 25-21 (0.543) in games that were within five in the last five and 23-13 (0.639) otherwise.

So, while the Celtics are on pace to win three more games, their point differential is actually worse this season (plus-2.3 per game, plus-2.9 per 100 possessions) than it was last season (plus-3.2, plus-3.0).

The improvement in the Celtics’ clutchness has been on offense and mostly in their 3-point and free throw percentages, where they rank seventh and second this season, up from 15th and 10th last season.

Isaiah Thomas, of course, is the man in that regard. After taking only 29 percent of the Celtics’ clutch shots (and 20 percent of their clutch threes) last season, he has taken 42 percent of their clutch shots (and 42 percent of their clutch threes) this season. Thomas ranks fourth in clutch usage rate and second in clutch scoring, having shot much better in the clutch than the league-leader (in both of those categories) Russell Westbrook.

The improvement in clutch performance parallels the Celtics’ overall offensive improvement. The Celtics have been the league’s sixth most improved offensive team, scoring 4.9 points per 100 possessions than they did last season.

That improvement has basically canceled out by a defensive drop-off (or vice versa, depending on how you want to look at it). And the Celtics’ rise from fifth place in the East last season to second place this season has been about their performance in close games.

No. 2

The Celtics have forced 2.2 fewer turnovers per 100 possessions than they did last season.

The league-wide turnover rate of 14.1 per 100 possessions is the lowest in history (at least since turnovers were first counted in 1977) and down from 14.6 last season. Most teams have seen a drop-off in the number of turnovers they’ve forced. But the Celtics have seen the biggest drop-off, going from 16.2 (third in the league) to 14.0 (15th) per 100 possessions.

Their defense is also worse in regard to opponent effective field goal percentage, but they’ve remained a top-10 team in that regard. They’re a bad defensive rebounding team, but have actually grabbed a higher percentage of available defensive rebounds than they did last season. And it’s in forcing turnovers where they’ve seen the biggest drop-off in where they rank league-wide.

You would think that the absence of Avery Bradley for 24 of the Celtics’ 64 games would have a lot to do with the reduction. But their opponent turnover rate has been only slightly higher with Bradley on the floor (14.0 per 100 possessions) than it’s been with him off the floor (13.9). The same was true last season (16.3 vs. 16.0).

It’s been in forcing live-ball turnovers where the Celtics have seen the bigger drop-off, from 9.0 per 100 possessions last season to 7.4 this season. Their opponents’ dead-ball turnovers are only down from 7.2 per 100 last season to 6.5 this season.

The reduction in live-ball turnovers on one end of the floor has translated into a reduction in transition opportunities on the other end. According to Synergy data, only 12.4 percent (21st highest rate in the league) of the Celtics’ possessions have been in transition, down from 16.3 percent (fourth highest rate) last season.

The Celtics have seen the league’s third biggest reduction in pace, averaging 2.2 fewer possessions per 48 minutes than they did last season. And that’s been about their offense more than their defense, which has allowed opponents to take a higher percentage of their shots early in the clock than they did last season.

With the reduction in their own transition opportunities, the Celtics half-court offense is even more improved than the basic numbers – as noted above, 4.9 points per 100 possessions better than last season – would have you believe. They’re a top-10 team on that end of the floor for the first time since 2008-09 and could be even better if they could get out in the open floor even more.

Such a drop-off in opponent turnover rate isn’t unprecedented. In fact, three teams saw a decrease of more than 2.2 per 100 possessions from ’14-15 to last season. And two of them – Miami and New York – were improved defenses overall. But this year’s Celtics haven’t been able to improve in the most important of the defensive four factors – opponent effective field goal percentage – like those teams did.

Almost every team in the league is worse defensively than it was last season. Only three – New Orleans, Memphis and Philadelphia – have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season. League-wide efficiency has rise from 103.9 to 106.1, the highest mark of the last 40 years. This season seems to be all about offense and among the nine teams that are at least 10 games over .500, there are eight top-10 offenses and only four top-10 defenses.

But only three teams – Indiana (plus-6.1), Atlanta (plus-5.1) and Cleveland (plus-5.0) – have have taken a bigger step backward defensively than the Celtics.

History tells us that defense is slightly more important in regard to playoff success. In the last 39 years, only three teams – the ’88 Lakers, the ’95 Rockets and the ’01 Lakers – have ranked outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the regular season and gone on to win the championship, and all three of those had won the title (with a top-10 defense) the year before.

Maybe this is the year the idea that “defense wins championships” can’t be backed up with data so easily. Maybe it’s not, because the Spurs and Warriors rank No. 1 and No. 2 on that end of the floor. The Celtics’ defense probably won’t be tested in the first round of the playoffs (teams 5-9 in the East currently rank no better than 15th offensively), but a conference semifinals matchup with Toronto (fourth) or Washington (ninth) would be fascinating.

With five weeks left to go in the regular season and with better health on the perimeter, there’s still time for Boston to improve where they’ve regressed thus far.

No. 3

Isaiah Thomas is on pace for 252 3-pointers and 625 made free throws this season.

That would make Thomas just the third different player in NBA history to reach 200 made threes and 600 made free throws in a single season.

James Harden has done it each of the last two seasons and is just six free throws away from doing it for a third straight year. The other guy with 200 threes and 600 made free throws in a season?

Gilbert Arenas, who was ahead of his time, ranking third in the league in scoring with 205 threes and 606 free throws in the 2006-07 season.

League-wide, the most efficient ways to score are at the free throw line (1.54 points per two-attempt trip), in the restricted area (1.22 points per attempt) and from 3-point range (1.08 points per attempt). Thomas is registering career highs in both free throw rate (45 attempts per 100 shots from the field, up from 39 last season) and free throw percentage (90.8 percent – in a virtual tie for second in the league). And he’s taken 79 percent of his shots from the restricted area (36 percent) or 3-point range (43 percent), up from 70 percent last season. More efficient shots (and better shooting in between) has led to the highest marks of his career in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, both by a pretty wide margin.

Only Houston (81 percent) and Brooklyn (72 percent) have taken a higher percentage of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range than the Celtics have (71 percent).

It all starts with Thomas, who has been the next closest thing to Harden in regard to combining trips to the line with shots from beyond the arc. He also ranks fifth with 163 assists on 3-pointers.

Thomas has missed four games this season and would be in jeopardy of falling short of 600 made free throws if he were to miss a few more. But as long as he stays healthy, he’ll join Harden and Agent Zero in the Moreyball Hall of Fame.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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