Celtics are better and will be better

Let’s rewind. In just over two weeks, the Celtics have re-introduced two starters back in to the fold after bouts with COVID, played three out of their first ten games at home (and lost them all), dealt with Marcus Smart’s public comments on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, had a players’ only meeting/dinner/gathering, played in one overtime game and two double overtime games, and lost a heartbreaker on a Luka Doncic prayer.

They’re 4-6. For a team that many had high hopes for, that record isn’t exactly a confidence builder. Dig deeper into the numbers and considering the X’s and O’s architecture that head coach Ime Udoka is building towards and you might be more enthusiastic than with the surface count of wins and losses.

The rotation is fairly set now. Barring injuries, head coach Ime Udoka has settled on a starting lineup and more importantly, a substitution pattern with some key components. Yes, Al Horford and Robert Williams are starting together, but they don’t play together that much. Friend of the blog Ryan Bernardoni tracked down these stats on Boston’s big men:

So, it’s no surprise that the starting lineup has been phenomenal this season with Horford and Williams in the back court. Smart-Brown-Tatum-Horford-Williams sport a 8.5 net rating (102.9 offensive rating and 94.4 defensive rating in 51 total minutes). That puts them in the same conversation as the starters for the 9-1 Warriors and 7-3 Jazz out West. Unfortunately — stop me if you’ve heard this before — they’ve only been together for just half of Boston’s first ten games. Brown’s absence for the next week or two with a strained hamstring will give Schroder a bigger chance to run with the starting five and they’ve been even better with him (109.5 OffRtg, 95.1 DefRtg, 14.4NetRtg).

To that point, Schroder will normally slot as a sixth man and a really good one. In training camp, Josh Richardson was considered a bridge between Brown and Tatum whenever either one of them wasn’t on the floor and that’s still the case positionally. However, if we’re talking playmaking and even scoring responsibilities, it’s been Schroder carrying that weight. On the season, Schroder is averaging 14/4/6 and with Brown out or the next week or two, Schroder will replace him in the starting lineup. As a starter in four games, he’s bumped those numbers up to 17/5/7.

Obviously, the most glaring improvement is the team-wide defense. Over their last four road games – for whatever reason, they haven’t found their mojo at TD Garden yet – the Celtics have boasted a stingy 95.2 defensive rating that included holding the Magic and Heat to 79 and 78 points on back-to-back nights. They’ve made key adjustments, limiting switches with their bigs onto guards and being smarter and more deliberate with their off ball decisions.

Despite some avoidable blunders in Dallas, the Celtics have been incredibly clutch in the clutch. In six games decided by five points or less in the last five minutes (the two double overtime losses in New York and D.C., the overtime win in Charlotte, the regulation losses to the Wizards and Mavericks, and even including the collapse to Chicago), Boston has a 6.6 net rating (98.9 offensive rating, 92.3 defensive rating). They’ve been in comeback mode in most of those contests, so that explains some of the positive numbers and for what it’s worth, the Celtics lead the league in close game minutes. Unfortunately, that’s only resulted in one win. That may not sound comforting because in the end a loss is a loss, but it’s a sign that there’s something taking root in Boston.

After joking with Brad Stevens at his introductory press conference about the Celtics ranking 25th in assists last season, Udoka’s squad now is 16th at 22.9 per game. More importantly, their 11th in potential assists. Shots just aren’t falling yet, but as Stevens would often say, “water should eventually finds its level.” Expect the three-point shooting to improve.

“We looked at the numbers after ten games. We like where we’re heading,” Udoka said after practice on Tuesday. “We looked at assisted three pointers. Our percentage isn’t great, but the fact that we’re passing and finding guys there is good. We’ll continue to work on that with our spacing in all those areas.”

On Saturday night, the Celtics were in the midst of another slump that helped dig a 19-point hole to the Mavericks that was eerily similar to a drought they weathered in Washington. Outside of Tatum breaking out of slump and catching fire, his teammates were 1-for-17 from behind the arc; in D.C., the team as a whole finished 2-for-26 through two OT’s after missing their first twenty 3’s.

The law of averages should be a rising tide after the team gets a few more games under their belt. With Brown out, last year’s rookie class could see more playing time and that should help Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard get out of their slumps, too. The good news is that the Class of 2019 are having career years from behind the arc; after not being regarded as shooters coming out of college, Romeo Langford and Grant Williams are both shooting over 40% from 3.

More notably, there’s sea change in mindset with the team. After what Udoka called an extended preseason, we’re not hearing the drone of teamspeak about “getting to know each other” or “learning the system.” It may be in its nascent stages, but the Celtics know who they are and they’re starting to impose their style on opposing teams. After their most lopsided loss of the season, Boston gets a second chance at the visiting Raptors. “That game left a nasty taste in all of our mouths,” Robert Williams said after Toronto delivered a 32-point beat down in Boston’s home opener. “Along with coach’s game plan, we plan on going out, playing our hardest, and getting revenge.”

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