This NBA season is pushing toward its midway point, and after 31 games the Celtics have been unable to climb out of the lower half of the Eastern Conference. They enter Wednesday night’s game against the Cavaliers stuck in ninth place with a 15-16 record.
The good news is that they are just one game out of the No. 6 spot, but the bad news is that they are also just a half-game from sliding to 11th, which would leave them out of the postseason play-in tournament.
Here are some statistics that provide context about what has gone wrong, as well as some clues about what could help them make things right:
▪ Pounding the rock. The Celtics’ offense generally appears at its best when the ball is moving promptly and precisely. But this team has a tendency to stand around and watch, and the results have not been kind. This season, 9.7 percent of Boston’s offensive sets have been isolation plays, the second most in the NBA.
Isolation generally leads to more dribbling and longer possessions. The Celtics have made just 43.5 percent of their 2-point field goal attempts when a player shoots after taking seven or more dribbles, the 23rd-worst mark in the league.
Even worse, Boston has made just 27.6 percent of its shots with four seconds or less remaining on the shot clock, the worst mark in the NBA. When those attempts come with 4-7 seconds left on the shot clock, their success rate vaults to 42.2 percent.
▪ Helping Tatum. All-Star forward Jayson Tatum is playing a career-high 36.6 minutes per game, fifth most in the NBA this season. Yes, he is shooting 42.2 percent from the field and 32.8 from the 3-point line, both career lows by a good margin.
Despite that downturn, though, his impact on the game elsewhere is obvious. The Celtics are being outscored by 6.1 points per 100 possessions with Tatum on the bench. To put that figure in perspective, that net rating on its own would rank 26th in the NBA, just ahead of the Houston Rockets. Tatum is already being pushed to his limits, so the Celtics need to find some groupings that are able to keep them afloat while he sits.
▪ On the move. The Celtics can deploy speedy lineups that include good ballhandlers, and coach Ime Udoka encourages his players to grab a rebound and look to run. But that approach has yet to truly be ignited.
Boston is averaging just 9.7 fast-break points per game, accounting for 9 percent of its points. Both of those marks rank 27th in the NBA. The Celtics may be slowed by their double-big lineups. With Robert Williams and Al Horford on the court together, the team has a 98.7 offensive rating, which would rank last in the NBA, nearly 2 points behind the 30th-ranked Thunder.
The Celtics’ most dominant five-man unit includes four fast, capable ballhandlers. Dennis Schröder, Marcus Smart, Josh Richardson, Tatum, and Williams have outscored opponents by 45.5 points per 100 possessions. That mark is not sustainable, of course, but it offers more evidence that one-big lineups could be most effective.
▪ Take it, make it. Amid all of the schemes, strategies, and lineup decisions, sometimes success just boils down to making open shots, and the Celtics have not done that very well.
Boston has made just 39.6 percent of its attempts without a defender within 6 feet of the shooter, the 23rd-worst mark in the league. The Celtics also have made just 34.3 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers, ranking 26th. With players such as Tatum, Horford, and Payton Pritchard having subpar starts, the Celtics hope there will be some progression to the mean.
▪ Indefensible. The Celtics’ elite defense has slipped over the last few weeks. After holding 10 of their first 22 opponents to fewer than 100 points, they have surrendered at least 103 points in each of their last nine games, dropping what was once a top-three defense to 12th.
Some of the cracks appear to be related to hustle and effort, Udoka’s recurring criticisms of this team. Opponents rank in the top 10 in second-chance and fast-break points, and the Celtics rank just 26th in deflections, averaging 12.8 per game.
The interior defense has remained stout, however. Boston is surrendering 42.6 points in the paint per game, the fifth fewest in the NBA.
▪ Finding Freedom. Enes Kanter Freedom’s minutes do not always appear to be going well, but he remains an advanced stat darling. His plus-9.0 rating still leads the team, well ahead of second-place Jaylen Brown (5.5). And three of the Celtics’ top four two-main pairings include Kanter Freedom, led by the dominant plus-16.2 he and Richardson have put together.