After wobbling through the first few months of this condensed season, the Celtics have done just enough over the last two weeks to give their fan base renewed hope. They go into Thursday night’s game against the Lakers having won six of seven, and entered Wednesday night alone in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, just one game behind the fourth-place Hawks.
“We’re not going to win every game,” forward Jayson Tatum said, “but I think we’re playing the right way and we’re for sure trending in the right direction.”
Here is a statistical look at what has gone right during the Celtics’ hot streak, which started with the April 2 win over the Rockets and includes victories against the Hornets, Knicks, Timberwolves, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers.
The Brad Stevens era has been defined by gritty, defensive-minded squads. But for most of this season this team simply lacked that tenacity and cohesion. Leading up to the Rockets game, Boston was allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions, the 21st-ranked defense in the NBA.
During this streak, the team has clamped down on opponents much more successfully, with a 106.7 defensive rating that is the league’s fifth-best over that span. After allowing opponents to shoot 46.7 percent from the field over the first 48 games, that number dropped to 43.6 over the last seven.
“It comes down to defense,” guard Marcus Smart said. “We’re not going to always score the ball very well every night, so we have to be able to go down and get some stops, especially in crunch time.”
This surge has been sparked by elite rim protection. In the March 22 loss to the Grizzlies, the Celtics allowed a franchise-record 80 points in the paint. They were surrendering an average of 45 per game before this streak. But over the last seven games they have given up an average of just 40.6 points in the paint, the best mark in the league.
The clutch gene
For much of this season the Celtics were abysmal in clutch situations — games that are within 5 points in the last five minutes. In their first 32 games that met this criteria they went just 11-21 and had a minus-13.1 net rating. They are 3-0 in their last three clutch games and have outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions.
Tatum struggled after returning from his bout with COVID-19 in January. While he is still dealing with some mild side effects, he certainly appears to be finding his rhythm. Over the last seven games Tatum is shooting 51.1 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from beyond the 3-point line, and 91.3 percent from the foul line, all of which are well above his season averages.
He has made more of an effort to attack the rim and has been particularly impactful with this approach. In his first 42 games he made 61.9 percent of his shots within 5 feet of the hoop, but over the last seven he has connected on a blistering 84.4 percent.
“You can kind of see he’s really into a rhythm of knowing what he wants to do on a given possession,” Stevens said, “and also where his opportunities are going to come from.”
Some fans become disenchanted by the overreliance on the 3-point shot in the NBA, but it’s hard to argue with the potential results: A 35 percent 3-point shooter is the equivalent of a 52.5 percent 2-point shooter.
Getting healthy has certainly helped, but the Celtics have made 3-point shooting a priority recently. Prior to this seven-game hot streak, 39 percent of Boston’s field goal attempts were 3-pointers, the 17th-highest mark in the league. But during this stretch, 46.3 percent of its attempts have come from beyond the arc, second only to the Jazz, who own the NBA’s best record.
And the approach has worked. Over the last seven games, 40.7 percent of the Celtics’ points have come on 3-pointers, trailing only the Lakers. And the extra 3-pointers have resulted in fewer inefficient mid-range shots, with the Celtics averaging just 6 mid-range points per game during their streak.
Three-pointers are more likely to be set up with assists, because they don’t involve a player driving to the basket. So it’s no surprise that the Celtics have seen an uptick in their distribution numbers, too. Over the first 48 games, they registered assists on 55 percent of their shots, the 28th-lowest mark in the NBA. Over the last seven, that figure has skyrocketed to 65.4 percent.
The other Williams
Grant Williams played intermittently for much of this season but appears to have claimed a spot in the regular rotation. And the results have been noticeable.
In 127 minutes with Williams on the floor over the last seven games, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 23.6 points per 100 possessions. Among Celtics with at least 100 minutes played during this stretch, Kemba Walker has the next closest net rating, at plus-10.7.
A bit of luck
There are some things that are just out of a team’s control, and for much of this season those uncontrollable moments usually did not result in good things for the Celtics. Over the first 48 games opponents were shooting 78.2 percent from the foul line. During this seven-game stretch, they are connecting on just 74.7 percent. Boston has a 1-point win, a 2-point win, and an overtime win during this streak. Small differences such as that matter.