Breaking Down the Boston Celtics' Impressive Winning Streak
When Gordon Hayward fell to the floor just minutes into his Boston Celtics debut, it seemed like all of the Celtics' championship hopes and dreams would go with him. The NBA world was in shock, as one of the biggest free agents of the summer had his 2017-18 season come to a gruesome end before it had even begun.
Exactly one month later, there is still shock over the Boston Celtics. But it's not the same kind of heartbreaking shock -- this time it's in the form of a pleasant surprise.
Since their narrow three-point loss in the aforementioned season opener against Cleveland, the Celtics have gone 14-1 and are currently riding a 14-game winning streak after an impressive come-from-behind victory over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night. Today, they wake up with a league-leading 14-2 record through 16 games.
With Hayward out, Boston has had some scares and close games, but they've also dealt with brief absences from Marcus Smart (ankle sprain), Marcus Morris (knee soreness), Al Horford (concussion) and Kyrie Irving (facial fracture), who have missed a combined 13 contests between them. It hasn't been easy, but the Celtics have done enough to make a lot of people think that the future is now -- or at the very least imminent -- in Boston.
How have they done it? On the court it's been as simple as counting the leaves on a clover: one, two, three.
Uncle Drew and The Godfather
In today's NBA, to be competitive a team needs a superstar or two or three. So when a guy like Hayward -- an All-Star -- goes down, it's difficult to win games unless you have one or two guys shoulder more of the load offensively. For the Celtics, their saviors have been the dynamic duo of Irving and Horford.
Recently, we documented Kyrie's fast start and what it meant to the Celtics' nine-game winning streak at the time. After five more wins, Irving's importance is even more evident. He's situated himself as an early-season MVP candidate, whether you ask Charles Barkley or Sir Charles' worst enemy, the analytics. According to Basketball Reference's MVP Award Tracker, solo-Kyrie has the eighth-best chance to take home this year's hardware.
Not only that, but through Basketball Reference's method of ranking candidates based on a model using historical voting results, the numbers have Horford ranked ahead of all but four players including Kyrie, his brother-in-arms. If you're looking for someone to say that's insane, you probably don't have to look far. Irving's flashy handles and ridiculous finishes are captivating, but a study by Five-Thirty Eight suggests that Horford has, in fact, been the Celtics' most important player to start this season.
Irving and Horford make up one of the NBA's best duos, and their individual advanced numbers back that up.
|Advanced Metrics - NBA Ranks||Al Horford||Kyrie Irving|
|Win Shares per 48||7th||17th|
It's worth noting that win shares are a cumulative metric, so the fact that both players still rank within the top-15 is even more impressive. In fact, Boston joins Golden State (Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant) and Houston (James Harden and Clint Capela) as the only three teams to boast two teammates within the top-15. And, if you buy into the notion that the Warriors and, to a lesser extent, the Rockets are the best teams in the league, doesn't that suggest that the Celtics fall into that same category in today's superstar-driven NBA?
The Young Guns
Feeding off of the outstanding play of Horford and Irving, the younger Celtics have found a way to blossom despite being forced into heavier workloads to start the year.
Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier and Semi Ojeleye have combined to produce 5.6 win shares this year. (Tatum's 2.1 win shares are most among rookies, and top-15 in the NBA.) As a collective, that group has been even more impressive than you might think.
Among NBA players 18 to 23 years old, all five rank within the top-34 with at least 0.45 win shares to their names. Tatum, Brown (1.5) and Rozier (1.0) rank fourth, eighth and 17th, respectively. Boston is the only team with more than three players in the top-34 -- and they have five.
As starters, Brown and Tatum have averaged 29.0 points, 12.4 rebounds and 62.0 minutes per game, while Smart, Rozier and Ojeleye have -- primarily off the bench -- accounted for 21.2 points and 69.2 minutes between them.
Dominating on D
If it wasn't clear from this summer's roster overhaul, these aren't your 2016 Celtics. Last year's team averaged 108 points per game and ranked eighth in the league in offensive rating (111.2 points per 100 possessions). Boston's pace sits at 96.8 possessions per 48 minutes -- it's gone from 13th a year ago to 20th in 2017-18. Granted, it's a small sample size so far, but to say that they're following the league's trend of getting faster would be false.
Being somewhat of a pace-down team seems to have benefited the C's. It not only helps to shorten games that they might have otherwise lost because of lack of depth or better competition, but it's part of what makes them the best defensive team in the entire NBA.
The Celtics lead the league in points against per game, defensive rating and opponent effective field percentage. They're also second in defensive rebounding rate after ranking just 27th a year ago.
In a nutshell, they're forcing teams to take inefficient shots, contesting those shots at a high rate and getting in passing lanes.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics lead the league in allowing teams to take just 5.2% of their attempts from the ever-efficient corner three. On the other hand, they're in the bottom-10 across-the-board as it pertains to the mid-range. That tells us that they're playing to the analytics and forcing teams to take more twos in order to avoid them hitting more valuable threes -- contested or not.
Speaking of contests, the Celtics -- according to NBA.com's hustle stats -- rank fifth in contested shots against per 48 minutes (62.7). Last season, they were down in the middle-of-the-pack in that category. And, led by Irving's 3.0 deflections per game, Boston's 14.6 deflections per game put them in a tie for sixth, compared to a ranking of 18th in that same category a season ago.
This combination has translated to a suffocating halfcourt defense. The Celtics' length, active hands and ability to contest have helped them to limit teams to 84.9 points per 100 halfcourt possessions -- ranking second behind only the Oklahoma City Thunder. And Boston's 21.1% offensive rebound rate and 12.4 points per 100 misses lead all teams in the halfcourt.
If anywhere, the Celtics' defense is susceptible to transition. They rank 24th in allowing a transition play on 63.5% of steals, and 11th in surrendering 130 points per 100 transition possessions. But if that's the best a team can do, Boston has a lot going for them.
Despite all the injuries, the Celtics haven't lost a game since October 18th and are, by record, the best team in the NBA.