The Celtics Are Fumbling Away an NBA Championship

The Celtics Are Fumbling Away an NBA Championship

Every good fiction writer knows that the best characters have flaws. Bestselling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s “Second Law” of magic systems expresses this notion cleanly: Limitations are more interesting than powers.

Superman is unstoppable, unless his enemy collects kryptonite. The One Ring is almost all-powerful, but induces paranoia in the user. And the 2021-22 Boston Celtics are the best team in the NBA—until they turn over the ball and maybe cost themselves a title in the process.

The Celtics boast tremendous strengths, and they have played like it since flipping the switch in January. They have two All-Star wings in their 20s, the Defensive Player of the Year, and a solid rotation of two-way players behind them; they have the league’s stingiest defense and a roster shooting 41 percent on 3-pointers in the Finals. If not for the turnovers, they’d be almost unbeatable: They’re 1-7 in the playoffs when committing 15-plus turnovers, versus 13-2 when taking better care of 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 big, switchable lineup is so stout defensively that the only way they can lose is to give up easy baskets off turnovers—but that big, switchable lineup also means they don’t have the ballhandling security to prevent those turnovers.

Ask the Celtics why they can’t quell the persistent problem, and they point to a few simple causes: Sometimes they don’t play with enough pace or make quick decisions, or they shirk the simple pass and dribble into traps instead. “Not over-penetrate is one [solution],” coach Ime Udoka said on Wednesday. “One or two dribbles too many can get you in trouble.” Jaylen Brown especially has had trouble retaining the ball on dribble-drives, losing the ball a few times on his way to the rim in Game 5 alone.

The most common theme in Celtics press conferences has been a need for better offensive spacing. “Some of it’s just unawareness,” Grant Williams said Wednesday. “You see it in the court where we’re standing all in the same area rather than taking four steps and getting out to the corner. It changes the whole game because then the close-out scenarios are different. Then they can’t necessarily help the same way they want to.”

Yet other times, Boston’s turnovers are more baffling, stemming from lazy passes or poor communication between teammates. With three cocreators leading the offense—Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart—and none of them particularly strong ball handlers, Boston doesn’t have the ballast to prevent the sorts of errors that just can’t happen on this level.

According to PBP Stats’ classification of turnovers, the Warriors have actually committed more “bad pass” turnovers and travels than the Celtics in the postseason—but Boston has committed 99 “lost ball” turnovers, versus just 62 from Golden State, meaning the Celtics are stripped or fumble the ball or otherwise, well, just plain lose it far more than other teams of their caliber.

The turnovers are truly strange and anachronistic as well. Leaguewide, turnovers have declined fairly consistently for decades. According to Basketball-Reference’s archives, the 2021-22 regular season had the lowest-ever turnover rate, with 2020-21 and 2021-22 tying for a record-low number of turnovers per game.

Against this league context, the Celtics’ problems look even worse. In the Finals, they have a 16.3 percent turnover rate, per NBA Advanced Stats, which doesn’t stand out historically from, say, the 2000-01 Lakers’ 16.1 percent Finals turnover rate. Goal in 2000-01, that was the league’s average turnover rate; in 2021-22, Boston’s Finals mark represents an 18 percent increase over the average.

If we adjust for era in this manner for every Finals team, we see that the Celtics have one of the worst marks in the play-by-play era (since 1996-97):

Highest Era-Adjusted Turnover Rates in Finals (Since 1996-97)

Team Turnover Rate vs. League Average
Team Turnover Rate vs. League Average
2019 Warriors +24%
1998 Jazz +22%
2005 Spurs +21%
2022 Celtics +18%
2014 Heat +16%

Via analysis of NBA Advanced Stats data

All five teams in this chart have another wart in common: Their Finals turnover rate was also worse than every single team’s regular-season turnover rate in the season in question. These Celtics, for instance, have a 16.3 percent turnover rate in the Finals—which is worse than even the league-worst Rockets’ 16.2 percent mark in the regular season.

Asked whether the lingering problem wears on them mentally, the Celtics are generally circumspect. But in the immediate aftermath of games that the Celtics have lost because of their turnover issues, more frustration has bubbled to the surface. “We don’t do this shit on purpose. I promise you, we don’t,” Tatum said after Game 4. “We’re trying as hard as we can.”

And after Game 5, he stated the Celtics’ problem as directly as possible: “We’re hard to beat when we don’t turn the ball over. Clearly, we’re easy to beat when we do turn the ball over.”

The Celtics’ turnover problems have worsened as the postseason has progressed: They’ve posted higher turnover rates in the conference finals and Finals than in the earlier playoff rounds. Fatigue might play a role. The Celtics survived a grueling seven-game series against the Bucks and Heat, in which their stars were forced to shoulder heavy minutes loads. Tatum’s 943 minutes are a whopping 192 more than the top non-Celtic (Klay Thompson) has in these playoffs; if the Finals reach a Game 7, he’ll 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 might just be that the Celtics have run into defenses that excel at forcing turnovers the past two rounds. While Boston boasted the league’s best regular-season defense, the Warriors ranked second and the Heat fourth, per Cleaning the Glass. Both opponents also forced turnovers at a top-10 rate, while Boston’s earlier opponents—the Nets and Bucks—were both in the bottom 10. Miami and Golden State against Boston, then, is akin to an immovable object meeting a very stoppable force.

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

With Looney, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, a resurgent Thompson, and defensive whiz Gary Payton II, the Warriors’ rotation is chock-full of plus defenders. And as a team, they move in concert, paying special attention to closing on Tatum’s and Brown’s drives with multiple bodies.

“Their defense is help-oriented,” Williams says. “They want you to have to make the right read. If you don’t, then that’s when they get off to the races. When they get off to the races, they’re a tough team to defend and are a tough team to control.”

As Williams suggests, in a battle of the league’s top two defences, turnovers are even more harmful than usual, because they give the offense an opportunity to score in transition. The Celtics have stymied opposing offenses in the half court all postseason long, but are more vulnerable than the average team when they can’t get set.

Points Per 100 Possessions Against Celtics in Playoffs

Ownership Start Celtics Rest of NBA Difference
Ownership Start Celtics Rest of NBA Difference
Off Made Shot 101 112 11 best
Off Missed Shot 108 111 3 better
Off Steal 143 132 11 worse

Via analysis of PBP Stats data

Notice that in all of the clipped plays above, the Warriors don’t just force a turnover, but grab a clean steal to generate a possible fast-break opportunity on the other end. In the Finals, 63 percent of the Celtics’ turnovers have been “live ball,” meaning the play continues without a stoppage, versus just 44 percent of the Warriors’ turnovers. And the Warriors have scored more points off turnovers through five games (103) than any Finals team since 1992.

“We’re a team that likes to make teams turn the ball over. We live in transition,” Looney says. “We have shooters like Steph and Klay and [Jordan Poole], and Draymond pushing the ball. We have a lot of options. That’s been our best offense all year.”

And it’s been the difference in multiple games that the Celtics have squandered over the past couple rounds. In Game 5 of the Finals, Golden State won by 10 points—and outscored Boston by 13 off turnovers. Through the full series so far, the Warriors are plus-24 off turnovers while the Celtics are plus-13 on all other points.

That’s why so much focus shines on Boston’s turnovers: This limitation is more compelling, and potentially decisive, than all their various strengths. Sanderson writes that a proper limitation “will increase tension” in a story, and the turnovers fill that role with aplomb. Every Celtics possession now carries the question of whether it’ll be the one to jump-start Golden State’s transition game. The margins at this stage are so infinitesimally small that one extra mistaken dribble, which leads to a steal, which leads to a Thompson 3-pointer, could be the difference between a triumphant title and a summer of regret.

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