About a month ago, Celtics coach Brad Stevens realized something had to change.
The Celtics were fighting just to stay above .500. Key pieces had missed significant chunks of time because of injury or for COVID-19-related reasons. When healthy, the offense still had firepower in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. But the Celtics had lost one playmaker in the offseason (Gordon Hayward) and had spent much of the season without another because of injury (Marcus Smart).
The result was an offense that was hardly recognizable compared to some of the Celtics’ best years under Stevens. Instead of the offense that had finished in the top 10 in assists per game in four of Stevens’s first six seasons, the Celtics were top 10 in isolations for the second straight year.
Much of the responsibility for creating offense fell on the shoulders of Tatum and Brown, the players who had the ability to do it on their own.
But the more the Celtics tried to keep their heads above water, the more apparent it became it wasn’t sustainable.
In a season in which continuity has been the biggest obstacle before they’ve even stepped on the floor, how do you create it?
The answer Stevens came up with seems simple, but it’s been a process, one that will continue as the Celtics try to pull themselves up from eighth place in the Eastern Conference before the playoffs start next month. Stevens has tried to get his team to buy into more ball movement and more cutting actions to open up more possibilities on offense, and while it’s been a process, it’s starting to click.
The ball is moving more and the numbers show it. The Celtics are 16th in the league in passes per game (286.6). In their two most recent games, the Celtics made 318 passes against Houston and 292 against Charlotte. Over the last 15 games, the Celtics are averaging 297.3 passes per game, eighth in the league.
“It’s translating,” Walker said. “We’re just being really conscious of getting each other open, really just picking each other up, helping each other play to the best of our abilities, to play to our strengths. I thought the last couple games we’ve really been doing that.”
After matching their season high with 35 assists Friday against the Rockets, the Celtics dished out 29 more on Sunday against the Hornets. Up to Valentine’s Day, the Celtics had eight games with fewer than 20 assists. They haven’t had fewer than 20 since.
“It’s just really the extra pass, I believe, Walker said. “And just really making quick decisions. I think that’s been the difference.”
Having players that can create their own shot is never a bad thing, and the Celtics have two of them. Tatum is one of the best in the league at one of the most valuable shots in the game. Only six players in the NBA are taking more than one stepback 3-pointer per game — James Harden, Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Trae Young, and Tatum. And Tatum is making 37 percent of his.
Brown is an elite midrange threat who shoots well enough in basketball’s abandoned floor space to justify it. He’s shooting 50 percent on middies, ninth in the league.
That type of scoring makes up for what the Celtics lack in a critical area, offense in the paint. The Celtics only get 41.4 percent of their buckets in the paint. They average 46.6 points in the paint per game, 15th in the league.
While the increased ball movement inevitably will mean Tatum and Brown will have the ball in their hands less, it’s designed to put them in spots where they don’t necessarily have to work as hard to score.
“All the cutting is designed to get threats at the rim,” Stevens said. “It’s just another way to get threats at the rim . . . I think there’s two things that does. No. 1, I think it fits how you have to attack the best teams, because too much pounding, as we know, just isn’t successful against these best teams because they’re so versatile and athletic.
“Then the second thing is it gets everybody playing the right way with the ball really popping around. And so we’ve been doing it for the better part of the last few weeks. Our offense has improved quite a bit. So, hopefully we can just kind of stay on that course.”
The Celtics aren’t the only team still pinning down their identity. Look no further than the Bucks to find a team that revamped its offense and went through growing pains. The difference has been that the Bucks have managed to stay among the top three teams in the East. The Celtics are trying to establish the most productive system while avoiding falling into play-in tournament territory. If they can do it, Stevens said, they’ll be dangerous.
“If we structurally can continue to improve offensively and we can play defense at the intensity level of the last, really, four games . . . the goal would be we could be a handful,” he said. “I don’t know what that means, but we can be hard to beat. That’s what we’ll keep shooting for.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.