BOSTON – Length, youth, athleticism and playmaking. The Boston Celtics have it all, and that’s a claim they could not make a season ago.
Much of the talk surrounding the team’s 12-game winning streak has been about its defense, and rightfully so; Boston leads the league by a wide margin in defensive rating with a mark of 95.4. But while many concentrate on how length, youth and athleticism have bolstered the team’s defense, many are simultaneously disregarding how those characteristics have positively impacted Boston’s offense.
Free throw attempts are an important factor when it comes to team success in the NBA. As evidence, 10 of the top 16 teams in the league in free throw attempts per game last season finished with a .500-or-better record, including three of the top four teams in each conference.
Getting to the free-throw line is a way to score easy points, and every time a team does so, it has a better chance of doing so again later in the quarter by forcing the other team into the foul penalty.
That’s why the Celtics, who won 53 games and ranked 15th in the league in free throw attempts per game last season with an average of 23.2, were so thankful to have Isaiah Thomas on their side.
Thomas carried the load for Boston last season when it came to playmaking and free throw shooting. He ranked seventh in the league with an average of 8.5 free throw attempts per game, and that total accounted for 36.6 percent of the team’s visits to the charity stripe.
Boston would have been at the bottom of the barrel when it came to free throw attempts last season had Thomas not been in the fold. He was, almost exclusively, the team’s only playmaker off the dribble.
Many assumed that the Celtics would struggle in this area this season after trading Thomas to Cleveland in August. However, the exodus of Thomas and Avery Bradley has allowed Brad Stevens to infuse more length, youth, athleticism and playmaking into his starting lineup and overall rotations, which has translated into more drives to the basket.
As a result, the Celtics are actually attempting slightly more free throws per game this season, with an average of 23.5 per night, and they have risen to 13th in the league in that category. Their ability to attack the defense is now balanced, and that’s why six of the team’s players are averaging at least 2.8 free throw attempts per game.
Last season, only three Celtics averaged more than 2.0 free throw attempts per game.
More players are regularly in attack mode this season. Kyrie Irving is the same guy he’s always been, a wizard with the basketball who is able to free himself from the defense and clear the way for open shots. He is averaging 3.3 free throw attempts per game.
It is the increased aggressiveness of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, as well as the additions of Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris, however, that has forced pressure upon defenses.
Smart, Brown and Horford have all dramatically increased their amount of drives to the basket this season. Smart is up to 6.4 per game compared to 3.4 last season. Brown has increased his average to 4.1 per game after averaging 1.9 as a rookie, and Horford is driving the ball 4.1 times per game after averaging 2.2 drives per game last season.
Smart is taking 64.0 percent of his shots off the dribble this season compared to 52.0 percent last season, according to the Celtics’ basketball operations group. Meanwhile, Horford is attempting 46.0 percent of his shots off the dribble this season compared to 39.0 percent last season.
The trio of Smart, Brown and Horford are combining to take 10.5 free throw per game, up from 6.8 a season ago.
Morris and Tatum have also been outstanding additions when it has come to playmaking. They are both long and athletic and are earning a combined 6.9 free throw attempts per game, 3.7 by Tatum and 3.2 by Morris. They are combining for 5.5 drives per game.
Let’s also not forget about Terry Rozier, who is playing nearly 25 minutes per game and averaging 5.5 drives per game, the third-highest total on the team.
Add all of these players together and the Celtics have a mix of length, youth, athleticism and playmaking that they simply did not have a season ago. The C’s have seven players who are putting pressure opposing defenses and getting to the line with regularity.
Last season’s offense was all about Thomas creating offense for himself and for his teammates. This season’s offense is all about everyone creating offense for themselves and for their teammates.
Length, youth, athleticism and playmaking have bonded together to create a defensive wall for the Celtics, but let’s not overlook how those characteristics have also turned Boston’s offense into a dangerous, balanced and aggressive threat each and every night.