Waiting for the Boston Celtics to figure out how to actually play basketball with one another has been rather trying for those of us who have believed in their ability to do so. In a way, it’s sort of been like a parent trying to potty train a kid.
You know they want to do it. They’ve really tried. And even though it seems to have worked here and there, you’re still not sure when you’re going to walk into an absolute mess.
These few days have actually provided some evidence that maybe it’s going to take this time, and it comes in the form of one stat: passes per game.
The Celtics have averaged 286.4 passes per game this season, 16th in the NBA. In February, at their worst, they averaged 281.7. In March, as things have improved, they have moved up to 295.4, good for 8th.
In the two games coming into Sunday night , they averaged 318. When the tracking stats are tabulated for this game, there’s a good bet they’ll be right around this number.
“We had 35 assists the other night, 29 tonight,” Brad Stevens said after the win over Charlotte. “When we moved it side to side, when we didn’t settle, then that was good. So the last two games moving the ball has been good, I think what we’ve really been trying to emphasize - more cutting, more off-the-ball cuts, more movement in the last four weeks or so. We’ve had some growing pains along the way, but for the most part, it’s been pretty good offensively.”
The defense for this year’s Celtics flows off their offense. When the shots don’t fall, their defense really suffers. So it stands to reason that a better offense has pumped up their recent defensive numbers.
Of course, all of this has come against the Houston Rockets and depleted Charlotte Hornets. No one is pretending that these past two games means everything is fixed. However, the way they’ve been playing has been providing Stevens and staff all of the evidence they need to encourage their players to keep it going.
Hold the ball too long and bad things happen. Make quick decisions with the ball, and things start to work.
“I think that's been the difference. Either you shoot it, drive it or pass it,” Kemba Walker said. “Just making a quick decision. For us, it's been the 3-ball. When guys come off the screen and you see a big back, you have to take the opportunity to get that shot up when it's there.”
The Celtics have been all too happy to isolate fire away. Passes, drives, and kicks like this play have not happened as much as Stevens would like.
The Celtics average 23.2 paint touches, like that one from Marcus Smart, this season. In those last two games prior to tonight where they tossed more than 300 passes, the Celtics have also averaged a league-best 34 paint touches.
And let tie this all up with one more stat to show you how much the ball is popping.