Boston Celtics: How the C’s have turned their season around

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

How the Boston Celtics have turned their season around. 

On January 6th, the Boston Celtics played the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Boston exploded in the second quarter, scoring 38 points, and went into halftime with a 63-47 lead. They even held a 20-point lead with just over five and a half minutes left in the third quarter (81-61). Then, suddenly, the tides turned.

The Knicks came alive, and the Celtics collapsed. New York came all the way back and beat Boston thanks to an insane RJ Barrett buzzer-beating 3-pointer. The Celtics blew a 20-point third-quarter lead to a mediocre Knicks team.

That loss, on national television, had a lot of Boston fans and NBA analysts questioning the Celtics’ mental fortitude and even their ability to make the playoffs.

About halfway through the regular season, the Celtics record had worsened to three games below .500 (18-21), good for 11th place in the Eastern Conference.

Fast forward to the present day and Boston (34-26) have won nine of their last 10 games and is only 4.5 games back of first in the Eastern Conference. They have completely turned around their season. In fact, since that embarrassing January 6th loss to the Knicks, Boston is 16-5, including a nine-game win streak with impressive victories over the Bulls, Heat, Nets, Nuggets, Hawks, and 76ers.

So, how have the Celtics been able to turn their season around? It all starts with their defense.

Celtics head coach, Ime Udoka, made a radical change to the defense by having Robert Williams aka Time Lord, defend wings away from the ball. Essentially, having Williams play a one-man zone. The next biggest Celtic — either Al Horford in Boston’s starting five and Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, or Jaylen Brown in smaller lineups — takes the other team’s main screen-setter and switches everything.

The idea behind this is to “build a forcefield around the paint by switching up top, with Robert Williams looming along the baseline ready to pounce,” writes ESPN’s Zach Lowe. The result of this change has been the best defense in the league.

Boston’s starting five has allowed 88.8 points per 100 possessions — the best mark among lineups that have logged 100-plus minutes.

Having said that, part of their defensive improvement has been due to luck as opponents have shot 29 percent on 3’s against Boston’s starting five and 34% against Boston overall. For the season, no team’s opponents have underperformed their expected effective field goal percentage by a larger margin than Boston’s, per Second Spectrum.

But even though Boston is getting some luck, it’s clear that they have been a different team since that early January loss to the Knicks. Only the Golden State Warriors allow fewer shots at the rim. In fact, Opponents have made 51% of shots at the rim with Williams nearby — eight lowest among 100-plus rotation guys who challenge at least three shots per game.

As for the offense, one needs to look no further than that embarrassing loss to the Knicks to see what has changed.

The Celtics were in control that entire game. Jayson Tatum was going off in the second half but nobody else for the Celtics was doing anything offensively. Boston then blew a twenty-point lead and went on to lose the game.

After the game, The Athletic’s Jared Weiss explained on The Ringer’s NBA Show that he asked Udoka how come Grant Williams and Josh Richardson, who were both shooting over 40 percent from three, were not out there at the end of games when you have Dennis Schroeder and Marcus Smart bricking everything.

"“That was the first time Udoka was like ‘we’ve got to get our shooters out there,” said Weiss."

They made the change after that, and they actually start winning games. Fixing that crunch time offensive issue was a big reason for the Celtics turnaround.

Newly acquired point guard Derrick White has also been a big reason for the Celtics’ resurgence. White’s averaging 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in the four games he’s played as a Celtic so far, per StatMuse. Those are solid numbers, but they certainly don’t jump off the screen. His stats don’t show how vital he has been in changing the Celtics offensive playstyle.

White is such an unselfish player. He moves the ball constantly. It’s in and out of his hands with a blink of an eye. He’s cutting. He’s moving. He’s never just standing still. He’s just a smart basketball player. That stuff is infectious.

It’s shocking seeing the difference between the Celtics pre–Derrick White trade to now. Instead of having Tatum or Brown hold the ball the entire possession only to hoist up a tough shot at the end of the shot clock, Boston is moving the ball and cutting to the rim, but most importantly, not staying stagnant.

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The Celtics now have the NBA’s best point differential. FiveThirtyEight even gives Boston the highest percentage chance of winning the NBA Finals. That may be a reach, but If the Celtics keep playing at the level they currently are, they are a serious threat to beat any conference rival in the playoffs. How the seeding shakes out will be vital to the Celtics’ success in the postseason.