By: Ethan Fuller
As the calendar flipped from Halloween to turkey-time, the Boston Celtics were embroiled in three close contests. On Tuesday, they edged out the Detroit Pistons to sweep a home-and-home series, winning the game 108-105. The C’s held down the fort at TD Garden again on Thursday, knocking off then-unbeaten Milwaukee by just four points. But Boston couldn’t seal the deal when they traveled to Indiana, as they lost to the Pacers 101-102.
In total, the week saw three games with two-possession margins or less and a net positive point total of just six points. Though the Celtics went 2-1, the narrow margins showed they haven’t pulled away from the other Eastern Conference powers.
Biggest Positive: Dominating Defense
Boston is the only team in the NBA to carry a defensive rating below 100, with their rating of 98.9 far and away the best in the Association. This stat is especially staggering considering the ballooning point totals witnessed on scoreboards around the league. The team managed to take down two top-10 offenses in Milwaukee and Indiana this past week.
Who has been contributing? Frankly, everyone. Every single Celtic sports a defensive rating below 105. Even Kyrie Irving, notoriously criticized for his poor defensive play, has a rating of just 101. The entire roster is getting in on the defensive intensity preached by head coach Brad Stevens and Marcus Smart.
Defensive rebounding has been a boon for Boston as well. The squad ranks third in the league with 8.6 contested defensive rebounds per game, underlining the gritty glass-crashing on display. Jayson Tatum leads with 7.7 rebounds per game, but eight Celtics are averaging at least four boards. Opposing offenses struggle to get quality chances against such a formidable lineup.
Biggest Negative: Forcing Free Throws
The Celtics place 28th in the NBA in free throw attempts per contest. Getting to the line can provide critical additional points, especially in tight games. All three losses this year have come in games where Boston has failed to reach more than 10 free throw attempts. Saturday’s matchup against the Pacers saw Indiana go 19 of 25 at the charity stripe while Boston converted six of nine free throws. That 13-point swing is a glaring “what if” in the face of a one-point defeat.
The C’s can hit their free throws, too; Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are the only regulars who convert at a clip below 70 percent. Among other franchises, Boston sits right at 15th in the league, making a smidge over 75 percent of their freebies.
Easy opportunities are crucial for when the Celtics encounter other close games. Free throws can help jumpstart an offense that already sits below average in most other metrics. Boston needs to draw more fouls by attacking the lane and forcing contact from opposing defenders.
Player of the Week: Kyrie Irving
After a sluggish start, the five-time all-star quelled doubters with a 31-point outburst against Detroit, and followed with 28 and 18 in his next two games. Irving shot over 50 percent from long range in all three contests, marking a sudden regression to the mean for a perennial sharpshooter.
Uncle Drew also continued to pound the glass, picking up five rebounds versus the Pistons and six at Indiana. Sandwiched in between was a seven-assist outing in the win over Milwaukee. If Irving, one of the greatest scoring talents in the game, can keep developing a well-rounded game, the point guard could nab a couple MVP votes by year’s end.
The Celtics head out on a four-game Western Conference road trip next weekend. They’ll first stop in Denver to take on a Nuggets team that is currently one of the hottest squads in basketball. Then the C’s run into a back-to-back, facing the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz on Thursday and Friday. The away series concludes Sunday against another strong Western Conference foe in the 7-3 Portland Trail Blazers.
The next week has a radical spectrum of outcomes. While the Suns look to be an easy task, all three other teams are proven powerhouses. The Celtics could turn up the heat, spread out minutes and return home a rested 4-0. Alternatively, they could exhaust themselves with travel and fail to generate any offensive momentum, coming home 1-3. This upcoming slate is an important early-season test of mettle.