Last night fellow HoopSpeaker Ethan Sherwood Strauss and I were G-chatting during the final moments of the Celtics-Knicks game. With thirteen seconds left, the Knicks had given the ball back to the Celtics, and we were both certain the Celtics would get a great look and probably score. In fact, Ethan, who is a Knicks fan, was so nervous, he wondered if New York would be better off fouling immediately, going down one or two points, then getting the ball with about 10 seconds to run a final play. His reasoning:
Ethan: call me nuts, but shouldn’t the knicks just foul
i trust their ability to make a shot better than their ability to defend
me: so true
As predicted, Paul Pierce got a favorable match up, went to his happy place on the right side, free throw line extended, and put in a routine 16 footer. A simple ball screen between Pierce and Garnett switched one of the Knicks’ worst defenders, Amar’e Stoudamire, onto the Celtics’ best one-on-one player in his favorite place on the court. It was merciless, it was clean, and it was routine. That’s how the Celtics are able to get great looks down the stretch– they run the plays and take the shots that they take for the first three and a half quarters.
And why not? So far this year, the Celtics have the most efficient offense in the league shooting 50.9% from the floor with an Effective Field Goal percentage of 54.27% and a True Shooting percentage of 57.9%. All these metrics lead the league.
This incredibly efficient offense kicks into another gear in the final minutes of tight games, which is important because the Celtics have already played thirteen games decided by two possessions or less (they are 9-4 in those games). In the last four minutes and overtimes of these tight games, the Celtics have shot a blistering 55.34% from the field. Factoring in free throws and made three pointers, they have an Effective Field Goal percentage of 58.7% and a True Shooting percentage of 57.21%! (True Shooting is down because they shoot more poorly from the free throw line during this period.)
What’s so incredible about these numbers is that their FG% and eFG% are significantly higher than their league leading regular season averages. I don’t know the league wide numbers for shooting in the last four minutes, but I have to believe the Celtics would lead the league in crunch time shooting efficiency as well.
So how do they do it?
Certainly having skilled veterans who make good decisions and rarely get ruffled is a huge factor. But I also believe their hot shooting is due in no small part to a philosophical approach that values running plays, often with a previously unrevealed wrinkle, that they run throughout the game.
Consider the logic of playing an entire game in one fashion, with one game plan, because you believe it will afford your team the best chance of scoring, then completely discarding that plan when it is most important that you execute.
Written out it seems stupid, but that’s exactly what many NBA teams other than the Celtics do. Creating good shots is more difficult at the end of games, but is that in part because some teams do less to create them?
Too often, as when Jerryd Bayless personally ensured Toronto would get dumped by the Bobcats by using the “dribble for 15 seconds then wildly try to score” method, a team’s offense devolves into one-on-one garbage with the game on the line.
Even very good teams with very good players are guilty of this. I don’t mean to pick on Kobe Bryant, but unlike Wade and LeBron last season, Kobe actually has a good team offense to play within (Wade and LeBron going one-on-one in crunch time made sense because that’s what they had to do for the rest of the game too). When Bryant catches the ball in his sweet spots on the right block or left elbow, he is within the schemes of the triangle and can use all his guile, passing ability and scoring savagery to get good looks near the paint. Sometimes he does this, others, like in Houston two weeks ago, he launches from 30 feet while Gasol looks disinterested (though you can’t blame Kobe for not giving the ball to a guy who isn’t asking for it).
But the Celtics, as much as any team I’ve seen in the last three years, get the shots they want to get throughout the game, and even at the end, when shot selection is complicated by an intensified need for shot creation. In fact, they have assisted on 54% of made field goals in the final four minutes (this does not factor in assists when the recipient goes to the line, so this number should be higher).
With four minutes left, down four points to the Knicks, Boston reeled of a stretch in which they shot 5-8 from the field, 1-1 from three and sank two free throws. It was special display of efficiency and execution, but it was also business as usual for the 20-4 Celtics.