Celtics' health woes complicating quest to gauge team's progress

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Chris Forsberg
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Forsberg: Four stats that highlight Celtics' current conundrum originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The “Oh, man,” that Brad Stevens uttered Wednesday when asked for an update on his team’s highly populated injury report told the story of the 2020-21 Boston Celtics season.

A week ago, the Celtics were down to a single name on their injury report. It felt like they were about to empty a Gmail inbox that was perpetually overflowing with unread messages. Stevens had even expressed hope that the team might eventually get a small window to see what it looked like at something closer to full health.

Just as quickly, half the team landed back on the injury report. Poor Stevens tried to offer Wednesday’s health update off the top of his head and completely forgot to mention All-NBA forward Jayson Tatum, who was deemed questionable with a left ankle impingement. Tatum would later downplay any concern and said he saw no reason why he wouldn’t play against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

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Many of his teammates aren’t as fortunate. Evan Fournier, who has not played since April 4, is out of quarantine but has not cleared the necessary health and safety protocols to return to game action. Robert Williams will miss a fourth straight game due to some swelling behind his knee. Jaylen Brown is dealing with left shoulder bursitis and is doubtful. Kemba Walker missed practice Wednesday due to illness but the team is hopeful he’ll be available after missing Monday’s game against Chicago.

Marcus Smart sat out against the Bulls, too, but practiced Wednesday and is expected to play. Still, if you’re scoring at home, each of the Celtics’ starters has been on the injury report over the past 72 hours. Essentially, everyone in Boston’s top seven has been there except Tristan Thompson, who was flexing his left shoulder as much as Brown on Monday night.

The Celtics are not the only team in the NBA dealing with injuries and, in this weird pandemic season, health might ultimately determine some of the NBA’s biggest awards, including Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year. But it’s undeniably exasperating that Boston has not been able to get even a small glimpse of this team’s potential at anything close to full health.

It’s even more maddening because, after some encouraging recent strides, the Celtics are about to play a back-to-back against two of the four best teams in the NBA. It felt like a potential chance to gauge whether Boston had truly thrust itself back in the contender conversation.

Forsberg: Daunting playoff path taking shape for C's

Instead, whatever happens the next 48 hours will have a bit of an asterisk attached. Maybe that’s the 2021 season in a nutshell. The team that crosses its fingers tightest and gets the best health when the games matter most might just win a title.

For this week’s Forsberg Four — watch the video version each week on Celtics Post Up — we spotlighted some numbers that intrigued us as Boston readied for a back-to-back against the Suns and Nets. We’re still intrigued but health might prevent us from getting definitive answers as quickly as we hoped. Let’s dive into this week’s numbers …. 

.388 

That was Boston’s winning percentage versus the top four teams in each conference entering Wednesday’s action. What’s more, Boston is 0-8 against the top 2 teams in the East and West.

It felt like a visit from the Phoenix Suns, and the final regular-season meeting with the Brooklyn Nets, might tell us just how far Boston progressed in recent weeks. Health will now complicate matters. 

Boston is a meager 12-16 against teams with a .500 record or better this season and 9-13 against the top five teams in both conferences.

The Celtics are just 9-13 against the top five teams in each conference.

8.8 

That’s Boston’s impossibly low turnover percentage in Fournier’s 115 minutes of floor time since joining the green. It’s almost certainly not sustainable but given Boston’s turnover woes in recent games, we’re left wondering how Fournier’s return might add a bit more ball security to the floor. 

Consider this: Boston’s turnover percentage in the 582 minutes that Fournier has been off the floor since arriving is 15.6, or nearly double the mark of when he’s been out there. Fournier’s career turnover percentage is nothing special and his absence alone has not caused Boston’s turnover percentage to spike. But he would provide another ball-handler to steady the second unit and reserve groupings.

Handle with care

Celtics' turnover % with Fournier

8.8

Celtics' turnover % without Fournier

15.6

Variation

Double

We’re simply eager to see the overall jolt that Boston’s offense gets with Fournier back on the floor. His ability to knock down open 3-pointers and create for himself and others should be a nice boost for a second unit that has struggled at times to figure out where offense is going to come from when Tatum or Brown aren’t on the floor.

19.5

That’s Tatum’s career-best assist rate. It ranks in the 91st percentile among all forwards, per Cleaning The Glass data.

It’s unfortunate that Tatum had one of his worst shooting nights (3 of 17) while posting his first career triple-double Monday against the Bulls. Tatum’s passing was exquisite early in that game and really showed how all the attention he is drawing can open things up for teammates.

To put it another way: If Tatum continues to pass the ball the way he did in the first half of that game, then the Celtics are going to win far more often than they lose. Tatum has been in the spotlight for his scoring output lately but it’s the way that he’s powering Boston’s offense overall that is most encouraging. 

The Celtics own an offensive rating of 120.1 when Tatum is on the floor over the past 10 games. That’s a mark that, if maintained, would be nearly three points better than the Clippers’ league-leading offense.

37.8

That’s what opponents are shooting against Romeo Langford since his season debut last month. Langford is holding opponents to 8.1 percent below their expected field goal percentage overall, and 11.3 percent below expectation beyond the 3-point arc, per the NBA’s tracking data.

More than a good luck charm?

Celtics' win % with Langford in lineup (nine games)

77.8

Variation

Single

Boston’s defensive rating is 103.7 in Langford’s 127 minutes of floor time. That’s nearly eight points below the team’s season average. 

The question we want answered moving forward: Can Langford use that near 7-foot wingspan to be a true impact defender, particularly when Smart is off the floor?

We want to see how Langford fares against some of the better perimeter players late in the season and see if he can cement his role in the playoff rotation.