Celtics are ‘a totally different team’ when they attack the rim, get to the free throw line
After the Celtics grabbed a 123-116 win over the Raptors Nov. 16, point guard Kyrie Irving stood in the locker room and looked back at all that had gone right in his team’s most impressive victory of the season. And one part of the game that stood out to him was not especially spectacular, but it was important.
“When we’re attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line,” he said, “we’re a totally different team.”
The Celtics, who had attempted 14 or fewer free throws in eight of their games up to that point, took 24 of them against the Raptors. In games in which they have attempted 24 foul shots this year, they are 6-1.
They did not quite reach that mark in their win over the Timberwolves Saturday, but the free throw line was still significant. Boston was 21 for 21 from the line, and perhaps most important, two players best positioned to cash in on foul shots — Irving and Gordon Hayward — were 17 for 17.
Both have struggled to get to the line with any consistency. Irving is averaging a career-low 3.1 attempts per game while Hayward is attempting just 2.4, the fewest since his rookie season with the Jazz. Over his last three years in Utah, Hayward attempted six foul shots per contest.
Hayward, who has had 13 games this season in which he has attempted two or fewer free throws, fired up a season-high 10 against the Wolves. Irving, who has attempted two or fewer free throws in 12 games, took seven against Minnesota, one short of his season high.
“Other than Jaylen [Brown], they’re probably our two most likely to drive and get to the rim and play through that contact,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “So everybody can do it, but those guys demand so much attention that when they do drive, they’re either going to get contact or they’re going to have a really tough finish that they’re going to have to finish quick or read and kick it out.”
Hayward admittedly has been tentative attacking the basket as he works his way back from last year’s horrific and season-ending ankle injury. But he said he is becoming more comfortable by the day, and the Minnesota game was the best example of that.
“No doubt, that’s got to be a mind-set of mine, trying to get to the rim more and looking to score, looking to attack, create some contact,” he said.
This issue has not been isolated to Hayward and Irving, though. The Celtics are averaging just 19.2 foul shots per game, ranking next-to-last in the NBA. And the shortfall is exacerbated by the fact that they have a roster loaded with capable free throw shooters. They are making 78.7 percent of their tries, ninth-best in the league.
The Celtics took 23.5 foul shots per game in 2015-16, ranking 12th in the NBA, but their numbers have fallen every year since then, from 23.2 in 2016-17 (15th), to 20.7 (20th) last year, to 19.2 this season.
The shift is partly due to a change in personnel. Isaiah Thomas took 8.5 foul shots per game during his final season in Boston two years ago. But there has been a downturn throughout the team since last season, and the roster hardly changed since then.
Brown (3.3 to 2.4), Marcus Morris (2.9 to 2.1), Al Horford (1.7 to career-low 1.3), Marcus Smart (2.5 to 1.7), and Terry Rozier (1.9 to 1.1) have all seen a dip since last season. The only regular rotation players with slight upticks are Jayson Tatum (3.2 to 3.3) and Aron Baynes (1.0 to 1.6).
And after a summer of adding strength and muscle, the 20-year-old Tatum’s hope was to become a more substantial threat getting to the rim. That remains a work in progress.
“Just got to drive to the basket a little bit more,” Tatum said, “pay attention to how many fouls they have, time, and situation of the game.”
Part of the reason the Celtics are not taking many free throws, though, is their evolving philosophy. They rank third in the NBA with 36.0 3-point attempts per game, up from 30.4 last year. Players are rarely fouled on 3-pointers, so the more 3-pointers that are hoisted, the fewer foul shots there will be.
Still, Boston’s preference would be to find some kind of happy balance. A deeper look at the advanced stats shows that they have players capable of getting to the line when the conditions are right.
For example, even though the Celtics rank just 28th in drives to the basket, at 34.9 per game, they are getting 4.2 free throw attempts per game on drives, ranking 19th. They are also getting 2.8 free throws per game on paint touches, tied for 16th-best in the NBA. And they are taking 3.2 foul shots per game in “clutch” late-game situations, 10th-most in the league.
“It’s free and easy points,” Tatum said.
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Brown, who has missed the last three games with a bruised tailbone and back spasms, returned to practice Tuesday.
“I’m good,” Brown said. “I’m ready to go. I’m feeling better every day. I’m just looking forward to being there Thursday [against the Knicks].”