The Boston Celtics Amazing Start to the NBA 2017/2018 Season: Behind the Numbers

The Boston Celtics, apart from having one of the coolest logos in the NBA, also have one of this season’s best records. Currently sitting at number one in their Division (Atlantic) and in the Eastern Conference too, with a record of 34 wins and 12 losses (73.9%). The Golden State Warriors, to no one’s surprise, lead the NBA with a record of 37-9 (80.4%).

Here is the situation in the Atlantic division:

NBA Atlantic Division Standings (19 Jan 2018)

NBA Atlantic Division Standings (19 Jan 2018)

And this is the situation in the Eastern Conference all together:

NBA Eastern Conference Standings (19 Jan 2018)

NBA Eastern Conference Standings (19 Jan 2018), first 8 go to the playoffs

As you can tell from the table the situation in the Eastern Conference, as usual, if pretty chaotic: from the 6th spot to the 11th or even 12th, we have a bunch of team with real chances to make it to the playoffs, and with only a short winning streak everything can change.

But this is not what this article is about; the article is about the Boston Celtics!
As we wrote here, I was not expecting the Boston Celtics to be this good, but let me specify this, just to be clear: like pretty much everyone else I expected the Celtics to be good, very good and a contender in the Eastern Conference for sure, but I did not see them having such a good record at this point of the season, so I picked the Toronto Raptors to win the Atlantic Division, given their generous odds (they still have a fair chance, being only 2.5 games behind).
But the Boston Celtics are flying high, at some point during the season they looked unstoppable, and managed to win 16 games in a row, impressive stuff!

Let’s break their record down:

  • 0-2: after the first 2 games of the season (0% winning percentage)
  • 16-2: after their amazing 16 straight wins (100% winning percentage in this period)
  • 18-10: since then, which means a 64,3% winning percentage in the last 28 games.

Why am I breaking the Celtic’s record down in three parts like this? Well, I’m trying to figure out what their real value is and let me explain this a little bit further.

The start of the season

When Boston went 0-2 and lost one of their main weapons for injury (Gordon Hayward, out for the season), it looked like the Celtics’ season took a bad turn.
After the loss away at Cleveland, Boston lost at home against Milwaukee. The team was hit by Hayward’s injury and their winning percentage was 0%. Was this their real value? I know we are just considering two games here, but, obviously, it was not.

The 16-game streak

Raise your hands if you were expecting this, because you might have some kind of extraordinary power! In fact, no one could really predict a 16 -game long winning streak.
Brad Stevens, despite his young age (41), is one of the best coaches in the NBA right now and much of the credit for this Celtics’ half season goes to him. He is very focused on defense, and I usually think that defenses win games, especially in the playoffs.

Here, you can find the 16 best moments from the Celtic’s 16-game winning streak.

These were the Celtics’ game results during that streak:

  1. Boston Celtics @ Philadelphia 76ers: 102 – 92 (33-20 in the 4th quarter)
  2. New York Knicks @ Boston Celtics: 89-110 (a convincing win)
  3. Boston Celtics @ Milwaukee Bucks: 96-89 (a good win)
  4. Boston Celtics @ Miami Heat: 96-90 (another good win)
  5. San Antonio Spurs @ Boston Celtics: 94-108 (a very good win for Boston)
  6. Sacramento Kings @ Boston Celtics: 86-113 (an easy win against one of the worst teams in the NBA).
  7. Boston Celtics @ Oklahoma City Thunder: 101 -94 (Thunder up by 18, Celtics came back in the final quarter and won).
  8. Boston Celtics @ Orlando Magic: 104-88 (a convincing win against an in-form team).
  9. Boston Celtics @ Atlanta Hawks: 110-107 (close game against one of the league’s worst team)
  10. Los Angeles Lakers @ Boston Celtics: 96-107 (a good win, against a weak team).
  11. Charlotte Hornets @ Boston Celtics: 87-90 (Atlanta led by as many as 18 before giving up).
  12. Toronto Raptors @ Boston Celtics: 94-95 (best of the East matchup, Toronto shot for the win, but the Celtics got away with it).
  13. Boston Celtics @ Brooklyn Nets: 109-102 (a close game, an away win against one of the worst in the East).
  14. Golden State Warriors @ Boston Celtics: 88-92 (another comeback win for the Celtics, after trailing by as many as 17, very good win).
  15. Boston Celtics @ Atlanta Hawks: 110-99 (another win in Atlanta, coming back from 16 points down)
  16. Boston Celtics @ Dallas Mavericks: 110-102 (overtime win against one of the league’s weakest teams).

We managed to get to the 20th of November 2017, the Celtics will then lose to the Miami Heat (in a close game in Miami) two days later.

Did you notice any trend? Well, before talking about that, let’s congratulate the Boston Celtics for their amazing 16-game winning streak and let’s have a quick look at the third part of their season so far.

The third part: a 18-10 record, in the last 28 games.

Boston Celtics' Last 28 Games (from database)

A screenshot of our database of NBA results and statistics (Boston Celtic’s last 28 games).

Being in New York City right now, I have seen a few of these games as they broadcast all the Knicks and Nets games on local channels here, and I think I have watched the highlights from all the other games, because… well I just love NBA basketball!
Two games were crazy, and I still don’t know how the Celtics managed to win them and I’m thinking of the one at home against the Houston Rockets and the one in Indiana.

Have a look at these two videos:

https://youtu.be/Pz00F8r5s4c

https://youtu.be/ZPMnpfz8D7M?t=1m

The final seconds in these 2 games were wild, and the Celtics managed to come up with the last second win even if that looked almost impossible just before the final buzzer.

If we look at the last imagine we can count that out of 28 games 12 were decided by 7 or less point, with Boston managing to score an 8-4 record in these games.
I’m underlining this because I think this could be a crucial way to interpret the Celtics’ season so far: they have played many close games! 12 in this last part, plus 9 during the 16-game winning streak plus 1 (opening night against Cleveland); a total of 22.

Considering that they have played 46 games at the time of this report, that’s 47.8%.
Teams with a similar record in the NBA, which basically means the very best in the leagues, all follow the Celtics in close-games-played:
Toronto Raptors: 18 close games played (decided by 7 points or less, 40.9%)
Golden State Warriors: 16 close games played (34.7%)
Houston Rockets: 12 close games played (27.9%)
The Boston Celtics tend to play more or even many more close games than their direct rivals and I think there are a few reasons behind this, and to understand those, we need to understand the Celtics a little better.

What’s Good and what’s Bad about this year’s Boston Celtics?

THE GOOD

Their Defense

The Boston Celtics have an incredible defense, I knew that Brad Stevens was an extraordinary coach with a great focus on defense but this year, in my opinion, the coaching staff have been doing amazing things.
As I said I had the chance to watch some of their games and there is one thing that pretty much happens all the time: a Celtics’ run, a strong partial score in their favor. Why does that happen? Easy answer: their defense can stop pretty much anyone for at least some, if not several minutes; and, if on the other end of the court Irving, Horford and Tatum score, that’s an easy good run for Boston.
Have a look at some defensive stats from the NBA website:

NBA Teams General Defense

NBA Teams General Defense

The team order is based on the winning percentage in this table, but let’s focus on the the Celtics row and moving from left to wright, here are their defensive statistics:
Defensive rating: 1st in the NBA
Opponent point off turnovers: 1st
Opponent 2nd chance points: 1st
Opponent fast break points: 1st
Opponent points in the paint: 1st

Also, according to Fox Sports and their stats, 6 players of the Boston Celtics are in the top 16 in the league for defensive rating.
Also, the Boston Celtics managed to beat all the 6 top teams in the league at home and always allowing less than 100 points! That’s incredibly good!

Well you get that, an amazing defense which is basically propelling them to the top!

The Unexpected Players
Boston Celtics Roster Stats

Boston Celtics Roster Stats

Jason Tatum is the big name here, 19 years old, rookie but playing like a veteran! (#3 pick in the 2017 draft). But not only, Jaylen Brown (#3 pick in the 2016 draft) is another one playing very well. Both young and averaging around 14 points per game. The future looks bright for the Boston Celtics!

THE BAD

Their Offense

If we move on from analyzing the Celtics’ defense and focus on their offense the trend is different. It has to be said that it is always difficult to find good defensive teams that manage to combine a good offense, but I think the Celtics struggle a little too much here.
I first made this consideration before looking at their offensive stats, just watching 5/6 of their games on TV lately; these games were against Cleveland, Philadelphia, Nets (2 times) and the Knicks.
They demolished the Cavaliers, while they played close games with the other teams and, while watching on TV, I could not help but think that their offense was poor; let me explain this.

As we read in the table just above, Irving is by far their best scorer (no surprise, here) and I personally consider Horford their offensive option number 2. Irving’s game is pretty demanding in terms of effort and stress, while I personally think that Horford’s game is incredibly complete shooting 52% from 2-point range and 43% from behind the line. It’s also amazing how he is averaging more assists per game than Irving (5,3 per game). The other guys, who are shooting well, are more finishers than creators (apart from Smart maybe).
The fact is that they don’t really execute much. They have a few good options but, as effective as they can be, that’s it. Irving is always dangerous, Horford can be lethal in the paint. But, their offense was not really a good show to watch, so I decided to check out some numbers: they are 17th in the league! Yes 17th! Pretty bad.

In this standing on Fox Sports’ website, we can see that the first Celtic player per offensive rating is Horford and he is 26th in the league! This is also bad for Boston, as when Irving is out, like in the last game against the Philadelphia 76ers, they offense is weak, extremely weak (they just scored 80 points, a season low).

Their slow starts.

We already underlined the number of comeback wins scored by the Boston Celtics this season and this has both positive and negative aspect. It can be seen as positive because it means that when defend they can come back from any distance and win the game, but this is very expensive in terms of physical and mental energies and is probably not ideal in the long run (and, especially in the playoffs).

One last thing that I want to underline comes from Espn’s Relative Percentage Index

NBA RPI Rankings

First of all, I think the SOS, the strength of schedule, is often overrated in the NBA, as it is often very similar for all the teams; but the two columns I would like to focus here are the first and the last.

RPI, Relative Percent Index: 25% is team winning percentage, 50% is opponents’ average winning percentage and 25% is opponents’ opponents’ average winning percentage.

EWP, Expected Winning percentage: “Derived the Pythagorean 16.5 Method, the basketball adaptation of Bill James’ Pythagorean theorem of baseball: Runs scored ^16.5 / (Runs scored ^16.5 + runs allowed ^16.5). This formula was designed to relate a team’s points scored and points allowed to its won-lost record.”
Here we see how the Boston Celtics’ value here, 68.7%, is relatively low compare to, for example Golden State or Toronto, meaning that the Celtics won more games than this index represents; their record is 34-12, the index says it should be 32-14. Among the first 7 teams in this table, they are the only team (with the Warriors) with more wins than this index expects!

Even if this difference does not seem huge, and it fact it is small, it’s still a confirmation that the Boston Celtics have been very good at winning close games and they probably managed to be the best at getting the most wins according to their offensive production and this is because their defense has been simply amazing so far.

The rest of the season

The Boston Celtics have played 46 games already, and their schedule for the remainder of the season is less busy than it was for the first part. They have won a lot of close games, which is both good and bad good because they were able to get wins, but bad because they played tight games against “weak” teams too. This in the long run can be expensive in terms of games as we saw, for example, last week against the New Orleans Pelicans, that got away win the win in Boston.
Not much to say on their defense, which will be extremely important in the playoff, when the game becomes tougher and more physical. On the offense, what it seems to me, is that while the Celtics have been very good against powerful teams and have proved they can beat anyone, they also could lose to pretty much anyone as games are often decided by a few points and with the level of talent in the NBA upsets are not rare.

Boston’s current winning percentage, 73.9% is much better than their regular season ending percentage of 64.6% last year, which was the East’s best. Unfortunately for the Boston Celtics, but fortunately for our pre-season outright bet on Toronto to win the division (as written here), the Raptors are doing better as well, 69.8% this year vs 62.2% last year.

The current odds on Bet365.com to win the NBA Atlantic Division see the Celtics still favorite at 1.33 with Raptors following at 3.00 (much shorter than the 7.00 pre-season odds) and Philadelphia 3rd at 81.
It’ll be fun to follow this race between the two best teams in the East. The Celtics won the first game in Boston by one point only, but there will be 3 more matches between the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors before the end of the regular season and I can’t wait to watch them all!

That’s all for now, time to go as an interesting game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Oklahoma City Thunder is about to start ?!

 

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5 months ago
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