The Celtics are nearly two weeks into their season, one which they hope will erase all the negativity and embarrassment from their dismal finish in 2018-19. The players and coaches don’t want to acknowledge the obvious change, and the reinvigorated environment. It’s too early.
It’s OK for the Celtics to be quiet about the change. It’s understandable. It’s difficult to believe the departure of players such as Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier, the maturity of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and the entrance of veteran point guard Kemba Walker could make such a difference so far.
The Celtics are off to a 4-1 start after Friday’s win over the New York Knicks, courtesy of a last-second shot from Tatum.
What has been encouraging for the Celtics is they have strung together four consecutive wins despite being the 29th-worst first-half scoring team in the NBA. The Celtics have averaged just 47 points per first half this season in an NBA where scoring is soaring.
The Celtics are also last in first-half field goal percentage (36.1) and 3-point percentage (24.4). The good news is their point differential in the first half is only 4.1, meaning their defense is keeping the Celtics in games. Also, the club is second in fewest turnovers during the opening half.
It’s just a matter of missed shots.
“It’s something we talk about; we want to play 48 minutes of good basketball,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought our idea to attack, our mentality to attack [the Knicks]. If we start slow and win more often than not, I guess we’ll take it but we definitely want to get our starts better.”
The problem is three of the Celtics’ primary scorers — Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Tatum – are combining for 30.7 percent shooting in the first half. Meanwhile, Walker and Jaylen Brown are shooting 25 percent from the 3-point line in the first half. Hayward is leading the team at 37.5 percent, but he’s attempting less than two in the first half.
“What stood out to me is that we have so much more room to get better,” Hayward said. “I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball. Certainly we haven’t played a full 48 minutes. There have been stretches, halves that we’ve done very well but we’ve also had halves where we have been pretty bad. So I think that’s what kind of stood out is we’re finding ways to win, which is really good.”
What has saved the Celtics? Stellar second halves. Boston is No. 1 in the NBA in second-half points with 62.8. They are 10th in field-goal percentage and second in 3-point percentage (35.6). And they are a respectable 11th in free throw attempts (14.4) because of Walker, who is fifth in the NBA in attempts.
“It’s huge, his ability to get to the line and you see when he draws contact, he draws contact. The one time when [Marcus] Morris jumped up and Morris leveled him,” said Stevens, referring to a play in Friday’s win. “It was a good, hard foul and Kemba got right up and knocked in the free throw. He’s a tough guy. He takes hits. He makes foul shots. He’s available every day.”
What is stunning is the trio of Walker, Hayward, and Tatum are shooting a combined 57.6 percent from the 3-point line in the second half. Walker is averaging 17 points after halftime because he is getting to the free throw line nearly five times.
Hayward is averaging 11.4 points after halftime and shooting 63.6 percent from the field. Tatum is shooting 68.8 percent from the 3-point line after halftime.
The numbers are so dramatically different that Stevens can’t help but wonder why it’s taking his team 24 minutes to develop a rhythm. The Celtics are seventh in the NBA in first-half defensive field-goal percentage. They have allowed opponents to hit just 33.3 percent of its 3-point attempts and are seventh in points allowed.
The trend is the Celtics’ defense is showing up much earlier than the offense. And in the second half, the offense is overwhelming opponents and the Celtics are respectable defensively (ninth in second-half points allowed).
So there is definitely room for improvement but the Celtics have helped themselves by starting the season strong defensively and then have been rescued by Tatum, Hayward, and Walker down the stretch. The Celtics aren’t complaining about their 4-1 start but they do realize there’s much room for improvement.
They can definitely make things easier on themselves in the second half with a better first half.