Game 1 of the Sixers-Celtics first round playoff series tips tonight at 6:30, and the Sixers are obviously heavy underdogs in the absence of Ben Simmons. Here’s 10 numbers fans ought to know about the Celtics before the series begins.
1. The Celtics rank 4th in both offensive and defensive rating—the only other team in the top-five in both is Milwaukee.
There’s been somewhat of a misnomer among Sixers fans—at least up until recently—that the Celtics weren’t in that top tier conversation of NBA teams, but the reality is they’re a top-5 team in the NBA. Despite a lack of size down-low, Boston is one of, if not the most balanced two-way team in the league.
2. Boston switches on defense at the second highest clip in the Eastern conference.
If you watched Boston at all this year (or the past five) this is about what you would expect. They play a position-less brand of basketball on both ends of the floor, and their cache of big athletic wings allows them to switch (mostly) everything defensively.
This is particularly concerning against the Sixers lack of individual shot creators—they won’t be able to use screens to get an advantage on the defense, and it’s likely our offense will have to fall back on Embiid more so than it already has.
3. They rank third best in the NBA at limiting points in the paint—43.4 opp PPG.
This is concerning when you consider it in concert with the second stat. It’s no secret the only chance the Sixers have at an upset is to ride a hot Embiid, but this suggests that won’t be as easy as most Sixers fans are suggesting. Boston may be light on size down low, but that clearly doesn’t impact their ability to prevent scoring in the paint.
4. They lead the league in effective FG% on pull-up jump shots—48.8%. They’re 3rd in pull-up attempts per game at 28.
This one probably surprises people because you don’t always expect a team that runs a motion-heavy offense to also rely on great shooting off the dribble, but that’s where Boston’s offense is.
5. Among the 51 players with at least 5 pull jump shots per game, Walker ranks 4th in eFG%, Tatum ranks 6th… 5b.) Of the 12 players who average at least 4 pull-up threes per game, Tatum ranks second on that list at 40.4%, and Kemba ranks 4th at 36.5%.
Walker and Tatum both have top-10 pull-up games in the NBA—arguably top-5. Shooting off the dribble is how both players prefer to do their damage. Kemba will get most of these looks coming off a double-drag pick and roll, and Tatum’s looks mostly come in isolation or out of a motion set. For all the hoopla that is made of Brad Stevens’ motion & spread offense, having two elite shot makers in Kemba and Tatum makes things much easier.
6. As a pick and roll ball handler Kemba Walker ranks 2nd in the league in points per possession, and 1st in eFG% among players with at least 5 P&R possession per game.
When the Celtics spread it 5-out on offense it’s a strong indicator that they’re about to run a ton of ball-screens for Kemba Walker. Like I mentioned before, the look they’ll run here the most is a double-drag screen where the wing comes across and screens for Kemba on the left side of the floor, from here a big (Theis) waits at the top of the key to either roll early—if the wing screen is successful—or set a second screen for the ball-handler.
The idea of rolling early allows two things to happen: 1) it creates an angle between roller/ball-handler that’s more difficult for a center in drop coverage (Embiid) to defend, and 2) it gives Theis time to re-screen (or seal) Joel Embiid and give the ball-handler an unimpeded path to the cup. The way Boston runs these double-drags make them near impossible to stop with someone like Kemba running point, and these P&R numbers are a product of that.
7. Of the 14 players with 200+ isolation possessions on the season, Jason Tatum ranks 4th in effective FG% (50.7%)—trailing only Lilliard, Harden, Kawhi; and just ahead of Doncic, CP3 and Giannis.
Iso scoring is often overblown, as it barely account for a handful of shots per game for even the leagues top iso players. Nonetheless, it’s important to have a bucket-getter who can score 1-on-1 in a pinch, and Tatum fills that role for Boston. They’ll start with motion offense, sprinkle in some spread pick-and-roll looks, and then occasionally fall back on Tatum’s elite iso scoring when they need it most.
8. Among the 102 players with at least 200 attempts inside the restricted area, Kemba ranks just 90th in FG%, Tatum ranks 77th—again, out of 102 qualifying players.
9. Among those same 102 players, Kemba ranks just 95th in FG% inside the paint, Tatum ranks 62nd.
10. Among the 148 players with at least 200 attempts inside 8 feet, Kemba sits 135th in FG%, and Tatum sits 110th.
Well there it is—the Celtics offense is lead by two players who love to shoot off the bounce but who are completely pedestrian scoring at and around the rim. This is sort of data you can build a game-plan around—drive those two stars off the line and funnel them into Joel Embiid. You figure if they shoot below average percentages in the paint in general, those numbers will only drop more in the presence of Joel.
Obviously allowing Tatum and Walker to get to the rim is poor strategy on it’s face, but without the right collection of athletes this defense is better off funneling things to Joel more than usual, as opposed to switching across the board, or hedging/rotating. The reality is our perimeter defense is going to get torched no matter how we chose to defend Boston, so leaning into drop coverage and hoping Embiid can stand on his head at the rim is our only hope.