As Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated has pointed out, the Celtics offense manages to be incredibly efficient despite a high turnover rate, low free throw rate and lack of three-point attempts—the typical markers of an inefficient offense. The degree to which Boston excels at the team game versus isolating its top players also appears to be following an interesting pattern. The Celtics are second in the NBA in percentage of shots assisted and have gone 0-7 this season in games in which the opposing team has accumulated more assists.
Of particular interest is that in these seven games, Boston employs significantly more isolation plays, increasing the rate of one-on-one scoring attempts from 8.5% — (the lowest in the NBA)– to 11.9% which would place them at 15th in the league according to Synergy Sports Technology. Boston has proven to be one of the most efficient isolation scoring teams in the league (6th overall), but that’s at least in part due to the infrequent manner in which the C’s go to this offensive option. Consider that, overall, they shoot 43.9% in isolation derived offense this season, with that number dropping to 32.8% in the aforementioned losses. While it’s entirely possible this drop comes as a result of forced isolation attempts at the end of the shot clock after an offensive set fails, which would be indicative of defensively superior foes ,this does tell us one important truth: the more the Celtics isolate their top players, the lower their success rate in the win column.
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have all seen their assisted field goal percentage(the percentage of makes that are assisted) increase significantly from where they were two seasons ago due in part to the inevitable aging process as well as the emergence of Rajon Rondo as one of the NBA’s elite point guards. Over 80% of Garnett’s makes have been assisted this season, with Allen topping 70% and Pierce eclipsing 50% based on information from HoopData, a testament to the manner in which the Celtics move the basketball on offense. These numbers even go up in crunch time as well according to data compiled by 82Games (Pierce 50%, Garnett 84%, Allen 86%), revealing a fact apparent to even the casual observer: Boston needs to be in an almost constant state of motion to achieve success.
Even Rondo, for all of his playmaking abilities, rarely isolates with the basketball before breaking down defenders. A whopping 78% of his possessions come in pick and roll settings or in transition. When factoring in plays in which he either shoots or passes, isolation plays make up only 18% of Rondo’s total possessions this season.
So if the Celtics struggle when they don’t share the basketball and the Big Three rely so heavily on their teammates and each other to set up scoring opportunities, why do the Celtics have the sixth best offensive efficiency when isolating? They know how to pick their spots.
Not only does Boston have the lowest number of isolation possessions in the NBA this season, but nearly a quarter of those possessions have resulted in the ball handler passing rather than attempting a shot. As a result of this endless ball movement defenses are often so occupied with off the ball movement that help defense in this setting becomes secondary. With skilled and crafty players like Pierce, Garnett and Allen, this is all they need to score efficiently despite no longer possessing the same level of athleticism they once did. The team also manages to run their sets in a manner that creates favorable isolation matchups, such as using a screen and roll to set up a mismatch.
Does this mean Boston can’t call a clear out play for Paul Pierce in crunch time? Of course not, just ask Jason Richardson. In fact, Pierce and Allen rank in the top 25 in the NBA in clutch scoring this season and we’ve seen them produce in this setting. Furthermore, teams have consistently allowed Rondo the freedom to operate unimpeded at the top of the key while his teammates run off screens, meaning Boston rarely has to isolate when on offense. But unlike other teams that consistently isolate their top players with a high degree of success (Lakers, Heat, Knicks), the Celtics are at their best when playing team basketball and selectively using the iso as a well-timed knockout punch.