Celtics

Karalis: The Celtics’ reliance on mediocre shots makes them a mediocre team

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The Boston Celtics are a mediocre team. 

The TD Garden should be moved to The Medium Place right next to Mindy St. Claire’s house, sell room temperature beer, and the team should be introduced to an Eagles live version of “Crazy Train.”

In an NBA predicated on scoring at the rim, getting to the line, and taking 3-pointers, especially corner 3’s, the Celtics love medium shots. They are taking the seventh-most mid-range shots per game in the league (14.2) and hitting 42.4% of them, good for 11th overall ... middle of the pack.

The Utah Jazz, by contrast, have put together one of the league’s most efficient offenses by taking the fewest mid-range shots in the league (5.6 per game) and taking the most 3-pointers (42.3), including the most corner 3’s (11.6). 

The Celtics are 22nd in the NBA in 3-point attempts, and third-worst in generating corner 3’s (6.7 per game). To cap it off, they take the sixth-fewest shots per game (23.6) in the restricted area, all of which adds up to a very middle-of-the-road 17th-ranked offense. 

“We just have to be better at controlling the things that we can control, playing together the right way on both ends of the court,” Brad Stevens said after the Sunday loss to the Washington Wizards. “I think if we take anything from this game, we take the last five minutes and we clip up how that group that came in played together and how we pressured the ball, how we were communicative … how we shared it and even though we missed some shots, we got great looks. If our team can play more like that last five minutes, then we can be as good as we can be. If not, we will be average.”

The question now is whether the Celtics can actually, consistently, be that type of team. 

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To be fair, there are some issues here that may simply be ironed out over time. Kemba Walker, for example, was a mid-range monster last season, shooting 50.4% from that area, which is a perfectly acceptable number. This year, he’s shooting 31.4%, an incredibly unacceptable number. 

Walker isn’t playing for the Celtics he signed with. When he joined the team, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were much different players, so part of fixing the Celtics offense depends on Walker adjusting his game will play a role in making this work, and right now the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. 

“Those two guys are special talents and we need them to be great every night,” Walker recently said. “I’m really the one that has to figure it out. Those two guys, they’re good. I’ll figure it out. We want those two guys to be super aggressive and leading us. I’ll figure it out for sure.”

Walker’s assists have dropped this season from 4.8 to 4.0 per game, and his 22.2% assist percentage is the lowest mark of his career. His catch-and-shoot attempts are down slightly, which corresponds to an uptick in his pull-up jumpers. This has all the hallmarks of a guy trying to find his rhythm. He’s in the middle of trying to figure himself out, which is partly dragging down the Celtics offense. 

He is certainly not alone.  

Tatum loves mid-range shots like I love pizza and, as my doctor will tell you, too much of either is not great for my heart. 

Tatum has always fancied himself as a mid-range type of player, yet the numbers continue to show he should rarely, if ever, settle for those shots. He’s taking 22.7% of his shots from that area, a regression to past bad habits that he started to correct last season. In his first and second years, Tatum took 25.5% and 26.6% of his shots from mid-range before dropping that to 16.8% last season and watching his efficiency take off. This year’s relapse is made worse by the abysmal 39% shooting from that area, but that’s par for the course with him. He hasn’t cracked 40% shooting from mid-range since his rookie year, and even that was a very poor 43%.  

The Celtics simply cannot afford nearly a quarter of the shots from their second-highest usage player to be the worst shots in basketball, especially not when that same guy is shooting 40.7% on 3-pointers. 

The Celtics' construction and circumstances have led us to this mediocrity. The Celtics started this season with Tatum and Brown surrounded by a new supporting cast. There was no Gordon Hayward or healthy Kemba Walker to move the ball and take pressure off them. Tristan Thompson was being integrated on the fly due to an injury and lack of training camp. The NBA’s sudden pivot to a December start pressed Danny Ainge to have to account for Walker’s absence, leading to the ill-advised Jeff Teague signing. 

Had the league started in mid-January, as originally expected, Ainge may have had more time to haggle in Hayward talks. Free agents may not have whizzed by in rapid succession before Ainge even knew how much money he had to spend. Walker might have even been ready to start the season, even if on a minute restriction. 

There is no “what if” column in the standings, though. Circumstances change quickly in the NBA and “fair” is almost never an applicable concept. All that Boston has in front of them is the reality of this situation. 

Tatum has fallen back into old habits, which is keeping him from truly taking that next step into elite company. Walker’s performance against Washington was a step in the right direction after a bumpy reintroduction to the team. 

The Celtics' assists are down 4.5% from last season. Their 3-point attempts are down 5.5%. Their free throw attempts are down 5.2%. Teams are running Tatum and Brown off the 3-point line and both are finding their easiest shots in the middle of the floor. Brown happens to be hitting them at an elite rate. 

What Boston isn’t doing is putting in the extra effort to try bending the defense just a little bit more. Maybe the fatigue of a ridiculous schedule conspires with their tendencies to make this true. Maybe the ego of “me taking this shot is better than him taking this shot” plays a role in this as well. There is certainly a bigger drop-off in the talent surrounding Boston’s young stars, and the right mix of those role players to support the type of offense this team needs falls onto Stevens’ shoulders.

“I know we've talked a lot about lineups and consistency and who plays and who doesn't play,” Stevens said after the Wizards loss. “Guys that really move the ball or guys that really run the spots and really execute hard have probably got to be the priority, playing-wise, for now around our very best players. And I think that that's where we're gonna have to get to, because that's clearly an issue.”

It wouldn’t hurt if the Celtics forced some more turnovers this season. Opponent turnovers are down 3.3% from last season, when a Tatum weak-side steal and dunk seemed like a common occurrence. Transition opportunities are a great way to pile up points and improve efficiency. 

“Effort” and “urgency” are common buzzwords in discussions like this, and for good reason. Moving the ball and not settling for certain shots means more movement and more cutting. It means trusting in teammates to catch the ball and make the right decision. It means having faith that giving up the ball will ultimately lead to getting it back, so that 18-footer doesn’t have to feel like the best option. 

The Celtics are mediocre right now, and that’s true for a lot of reasons. Some of those are just unique factors that won’t change because some percentage of this season will always be ridiculous. 

A lot of it, though, is a matter of choice. 

Stevens loves to talk about building championship habits. This team lacks the focus and resolve to do that right now, and until they truly commit to those things and change the trajectory of these numbers, this is going to be who they are. 

Sometimes good. Sometimes bad. 

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