The Celtics Are Fumbling Away an NBA Championship

Any good novelist knows that the best characters have flaws. Bestselling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s “Second Law” of magical systems makes this notion clear: limitations are more interesting than powers.

Superman is unstoppable unless his enemy collects kryptonite. The One Ring is almost omnipotent, but triggers paranoia in the user. And the 2021-22 Boston Celtics are the best team in the NBA — until they turn the ball around and maybe lose a title in the process.

The Celtics have tremendous strengths and have been playing like this since the switch flicked in January. They have two All-Star wings in their 20s, Defensive Player of the Year and a solid rotation of two-way players behind them; They have the stingiest defense in the league and a squad that shoots 41 percent of 3-pointers in the finals. Without the turnovers, they’d be almost unbeatable: They’re 1-7 in the playoffs if they have 15+ turnovers versus 13-2 if they’re more careful with the ball.

But the very identity that turned the Celtics’ season around and made them championship favorites also gave them a fatal flaw. Boston’s large, reversible lineup is so strong defensively that they can only lose by giving up easy baskets on turnovers — but that big, reversible lineup also means they don’t have the ball security to thwart those turnovers.

Ask the Celtics why they can’t quell the stubborn problem, and they give a few simple reasons: sometimes they don’t play with enough pace or make quick decisions, or they shy away from easy passes and dribble into traps instead. “One thing is not to overdo it [solution]”said coach Ime Udoka on Wednesday. “One or two too many dribbles can get you in trouble.” Jaylen Brown in particular struggled to keep the ball on dribble drives, losing the ball a few times en route to the edge in Game 5.

The most common topic in Celtics press conferences has been the need for better offensive distance. “Part of it is just ignorance,” Grant Williams said on Wednesday. “You see it in court where we’re all standing in the same area instead of taking four steps and going into the corner. It changes the whole game because then the close-out scenarios are different. Then they can’t necessarily help in the way they want.”

Other times, Boston’s turnovers are more confusing, stemming from lazy passes or poor communication between teammates. With three co-creators leading the offense — Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart — and none of them particularly strong ball carriers, Boston doesn’t have the guts to prevent the kinds of mistakes that just can’t happen at this level.

According to PBP Stats revenue classification, the Warriors have actually committed more bad pass revenue and travel in the postseason than the Celtics — but Boston has committed 99 lost ball revenue versus only 62 by Golden State undressed or fumble the ball or otherwise just lose it a lot more than other teams of their caliber.

The turnovers are really strange and also anachronistic. League-wide, sales have been declining fairly consistently for decades. According to Basketball-Reference archives, the 2021-22 regular season had the lowest turnover rate ever, with 2020-21 and 2021-22 producing record-low turnovers per game.

Against this league context, the Celtics’ problems look even worse. In the Finals, they have a turnover rate of 16.3 percent, according to NBA Advanced Stats, which historically doesn’t differ from the Lakers’ 2000-01 turnover rate of 16.1 percent at the Finals. But in 2000/01 that was the league Average turnover rate; 2021-22 represents Boston’s Finals brand 18 percent increase over the average.

Adjusting the era for each Finals team in this way, we see that the Celtics have one of the worst marks in the play-by-play era (since 1996-97):

Highest epoch-adjusted final turnover rates (since 1996-97)

team Turnover rate vs. league average
team Turnover rate vs. league average
2019 warrior +24%
1998 Jazz +22%
2005 Spurs +21%
2022 Celtics +18%
2014 heat +16%

By analyzing NBA Advanced Stats data

All five teams on this chart have one other thing in common: Their Finals turnover rate during the season in question was also worse than each team’s turnover rate during the regular season. These Celtics, for example, have a 16.3 percent turnover rate in the Finals — which is even worse than the 16.2 percent mark of the league’s worst Rockets in the regular season.

When asked if the ongoing problem is taking a toll on them mentally, the Celtics are generally circumspect. But more frustration bubbled to the surface immediately after the games the Celtics lost due to their revenue woes. “We don’t do this shit on purpose. I promise you we don’t,” Tatum said after Game 4. “We try as hard as we can.”

And after Game 5, he addressed the Celtics’ problem as directly as possible: “We’re hard to beat if we don’t turn the ball over. Of course we’re easy to beat if we turn the ball around.”

The Celtics’ turnover problems have worsened as the postseason progressed: they recorded higher turnover rates in the Conference Finals and Finals than in the earlier playoff rounds. Fatigue could play a role. The Celtics endured a grueling seven-game series against the Bucks and Heat that saw their stars shoulder heavy minute loads. Tatum’s 943 minutes is a whopping 192 more than the top non-Celtic (Klay Thompson) in this playoff; If the Finals reaches a Game 7, he will become the 10th player ever to reach 1,000 minutes in a single postseason and the first since Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince in 2005.

Or, if not fatigue, it could be that the Celtics have come up against defenses that excel at forcing turnovers in the last two rounds. While Boston had the league’s best regular-season defense, the Warriors finished second and the Heat fourth, according to Cleaning the Glass. Both opponents also forced turnovers at a top-10 rate, while Boston’s previous opponents — the Nets and Bucks — were both in the bottom 10. Miami and Golden State vs. Boston is thus akin to an immovable object meeting a very stoppable force.

“When you think of the Warriors, you think of Steph and Klay, you automatically just think of offense,” Kevon Looney said Wednesday. “But every year since I’ve been here, every time we’re a team fighting for the championship, it’s because of our defense. We were good on both sides of the ball. I think this year our defense carried us even more than our offense.”

With Looney, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, a resurgent Thompson and defensive genius Gary Payton II, the Warriors rotation is chock-full of plus-backs. And as a team, they move together, paying special attention to closing Tatum’s and Brown’s multi-body drives.

“Their defense is help-oriented,” says Williams. “They want you to have to read properly. If not, then they get off for the races. When they go to the races they are a difficult team to defend and difficult to control.”

As Williams suggests, turnovers are even more damaging than usual in a battle between the league’s top two defenders because they give the offense an opportunity to score in the transition. The Celtics have hampered opposing offenses in halffield all postseason, but are more vulnerable than the average team when they can’t commit.

Points per 100 possession vs Celtics in the playoffs

begin possession Celts rest of the NBA difference
begin possession Celts rest of the NBA difference
Made from shot 101 112 11 better
From Missed Shot 108 111 3 better
Steal from 143 132 11 worse

About Analysis of PBP Statistics Data

Note that in all of the above clipped plays, the Warriors not only force a turnover, but snag a clean steal to create a possible fast-break opportunity at the other end. In the Finals, 63 percent of Celtics turnovers were live balls, meaning play continues uninterrupted, versus just 44 percent of Warriors turnovers. And the Warriors have more points from turnovers in five games (103) than any Finals team since 1992.

“We’re a team that loves to make teams turn the ball around. We live in transition,” says Looney. “We have shooters like Steph and Klay and [Jordan Poole], and Draymond pushes the ball. We have a lot of chances. That was our best offense of the year.”

And it was the multiple game difference that the Celtics wasted in the last few rounds. In Game 5 of the Finals, Golden State won by 10 points – beating Boston by 13 fewer turnovers. In the entire series so far, the Warriors are up 24 turnovers while the Celtics are up 13 in all other points.

That’s why Boston’s sales are so much in the spotlight: that constraint is more compelling and potentially more critical than any of its various strengths. Sanderson writes that appropriate constraint in a story “increases the tension,” and the sales fill that role with aplomb. Each Celtics possession now raises the question of whether it will be the one to kickstart Golden State’s transition game. The margins at this stage are so tiny that one additional false dribble resulting in a steal that results in a Thompson 3-pointer could mean the difference between a title triumph and a summer of regrets.

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