A lot has been made of the struggles the Boston Celtics have had in their first 36 games of the season. Sitting at fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 21-15 record, especially when they were widely regarded as the favorites to become the next Conference dynasty is a serious head-scratcher.
It’s been widely-documented that Gordon Hayward hasn’t been himself in his first season following his gruesome ankle injury suffered in his first Celtics game last year, and the injury concerns to recently come up regarding another max-contract player in Al Horford.
We’ve all heard about the regression of both Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, as well as the streakiness of Jayson Tatum’s outside shot in year two of his career.
But the problems with the Celtics far exceeds any individual or two on the team. As a team, there are a few key components missing that are holding them back a great deal in some of these games.
When people outside of Rockets fans think of James Harden, they think of him as a free throw merchant, who gets the majority of his points from the charity stripe. While he does get to the line a lot, it doesn’t mean those points don’t mean anything to the overall success of the team. Adam Kaufman tweeted out early Wednesday morning that James Harden has taken more free throws (58) in his last three games, than Kyrie Irving (55) in the entire month of December.
Again, none of the individual numbers matter if the rest of the team can pick up the slack. Which, through 36 games, they haven’t. The Celtics average just 20.2 free throw attempts per game, which is 27th in the NBA. Only three teams shoot less from the line than the Celtics, and they are the Bulls, Suns, and Magic –– three rebuilding teams.
The unsettling part of the whole free throw problem is that the Celtics shoot a seventh-best 79.7% free throw percentage, thus blanketing the fact that they don’t get to the line enough.
Another issue is the fact the Celtics, for a team with a ton of athleticism and grit, they are a middle-of-the-pack rebounding team. In fact, the only team ahead of Boston in the standings that is a worse rebounding unit in Indiana. But the Bucks, Raptors, and Sixers all hold the edge on 14th-ranked Boston.
There are some legitimate excuses to be had for Boston, as Al Horford and Aron Baynes have both missed extended periods of time due to lingering ailments, but they only account for so many when they are out there. The rest of the team hasn’t been picking up the slack when those guys are out, even with guys like Kyrie Irving averaging a career-high in that regard, and Gordon Hayward averaging his second-most per-36 minutes.
Last but not least: Second quarter play. The Celtics go from the fourth-best point differential in the first quarter (+144), to the ninth-worst in the second (-48). Naturally, you’d expect a decent-sized drop-off in a quarter that you see more of your bench than your starting lineup. But for a team considered to be a Finals contender, the net drop-off shouldn’t be a 192-point difference. For lack of a better way to describe it, Boston has been anemic in the second quarter this season.
They don’t have to be a +50 team in the second, but a team that gets off to fast starts should be able to keep it fairly even when the starters come out –– especially when the bench consists of Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown.
On top of that, Boston goes back into the top-10 in point differential in the third and fourth quarters.
It ranges a little bit further than just the individual when looking at the Celtics woes to start the year. That being said, they’re just 36 games in, and have looked a lot better in their last 15 games. With 46 games to go, Boston is still just 5.5 games out of first in the East. A very doable feat to overcome with a roster as talented as this one is.