Forsberg: Celtics didn't wait to fix what ailed them originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
That the Boston Celtics are off to a blistering start to the 2022-23 season shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise. This is, after all, a team that was in the NBA Finals five months ago. What’s more, the Celtics pledged to start fast after having to dig themselves out of an early season hole a year ago.
But what’s maybe most jarring about Boston’s hot start is the way the team has shored up some of the most obvious flaws that hindered last season's title quest. Just about everything that was fretted during the team’s playoff run has improved — and not just marginally.
A rundown of Boston’s most notable improvements to start the new campaign:
Turning over a new leaf ... instead of the ball
When someone suggests that the Celtics fumbled away Banner 18, they mean it quite literally. The Celtics turnover rate spiked to an impossibly bad 17.6 percent during the NBA Finals last year, capping a playoff run in which an inability to maximize offensive possessions routinely complicated Boston’s title quest.
This season, despite playing at an elevated pace, Boston has basically erased its turnover woes. Entering Thursday’s action, the Celtics ranked second in the NBA in turnover rate at 12.9 percent. That’s down an entire percentage point from the 2021-22 regular season, when Boston ranked 13th overall. In the playoffs, Boston’s number spiked to 15.4 percent overall.
The Celtics have three of the top six players in the league based on assist-to-turnover ratio (among those with at least 10 games played and 20+ minutes per game). Derrick White is third (5.3) while Marcus Smart is sixth (4.3). But everyone is doing their part.
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Sam Hauser doesn’t just hit 3-pointers, he values the ball with only two turnovers in 246 minutes of floor time. White has turned the ball over on just 7.1 percent of his finished possessions, an absurd number for a ball-handler. Jayson Tatum has limited his giveaways despite heightened aggression in attacking the basket. Smart’s turnover rate is down more than three percent from a year ago.
Even more encouraging, the Celtics lead the NBA with the fewest live-ball turnovers. So even if they do give the ball up, they’re at least throwing it into the third row and letting their defense get set, rather than allowing an easy transition layup.
There’s still room for improvement. Jaylen Brown’s turnovers have come in batches. Malcolm Brogdon’s turnover rate is much higher than his career average. But Boston’s early season trend of taking care of the ball is a big reason that the team's offense is playing at a historic efficiency.
No lulls for MVP Tatum
For all his obvious talents, Tatum had the propensity to fade into the scenery. He would get quiet for a quarter or maybe a half every now and again. Tatum's shooting woes in the Finals were highly documented in the aftermath.
Seemingly motivated by the criticism, Tatum has been a far more consistent presence this year. Even when his shot isn’t falling or calls are going against him, Tatum finds a way to impact winning.
What’s more, when games get close, it’s often Tatum who steadies the ship. He looked low on gas for much of Wednesday’s visit to Atlanta but went into distribution mode early and made shots when Boston needed to stiff-arm a rare Hawks charge.
There are simply no glaring weaknesses in Tatum’s game to start the year. He’s getting to the line more, the offense is humming when he’s on the floor, and he’s injected himself into the All-Defense conversation with his willingness to defend the other team’s best players in key spots. All of which helps explain why there’s been so much MVP buzz early in the new season.
Tatum’s workload does remain a bit of a concern. He’s second in the NBA in total minutes played at 558. Tatum is a gamer and likely knows that playing every night will only enhance his MVP case. But the Celtics need a few more breezy fourth quarters so Tatum can kick his feet up more often.
Bench mob is real
The Celtics got inconsistent returns from their bench during the 2022 playoffs. The reserves generated a mere 22.5 points per game while shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 35.7 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
Even with early-season injuries forcing at least one bench player to elevate to the starting group each night, Boston’s reserves have been insanely efficient to start the new season. Their scoring number doesn’t leap off the page — 34.3 points per game ranks 13th overall in the NBA — but it’s the efficiency with which the bench group is operating.
Boston’s bench ranks first in 3-point percentage (44.6) and second in both field goal (50.7) and free throw percentages (85.2). The second unit doesn’t take a whole lot of shots but they maximize the ones they do. And they usually come from beyond the arc.
Hauser, in particular, has been a revelation. The Celtics endured a gut punch when offseason addition Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL in international play but Hauser has made the most of his new opportunity. He leads the NBA in net rating with the Celtics outscoring opponents by 24 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. What’s more, there’s not a player within 5 points of him (among all players logging at least 15 minutes per game).
Hauser thrives with bench units and with starters. The NBA’s top 2-man lineups (minimum 100 minutes) reads like this: 1. Tatum/Hauser +29.9, 2. Luke Kornet/Hauser +29.2.
Kornet, slowed by a preseason ankle injury, has emerged as Boston’s most reliable bench big, at least with Grant Williams shuffling to a starting role. White has spent much of the year as a starter but has shown an ability to thrive in either role. Brogdon has missed a few games due to hamstring soreness but seemed like the missing piece for the bench before his injury. Payton Pritchard shook off DNPs in seven of Boston’s first 10 games and has given the team a needed spark in each of its last two wins over the Thunder and Hawks.
Brad Stevens deserves credit for assembling a roster in which every piece seems interconnected. There is little drop-off even when the Celtics have to reach deep into their depth. On Wednesday night in Atlanta, Boston was missing three of its top six bodies and still put seven players in double figures for scoring.
Credit, too, to coach Joe Mazzulla, who has pressed all the right buttons this season. Mazzulla was put in a tough position but has found a way to supercharge the offense and Boston might have only scratched the surface of its overall potential while waiting for Robert Williams III to return from preseason surgery.