Have you heard? The Boston Celtics have been playing some outstanding basketball over the last couple of months. Since Rajon Rondo went down with a season-ending ACL tear in late January, the Celtics have gone 16-6. If you want to go back even further than that, Boston is 22-12 since its shaky 14-17 start.
Sound familiar? Well, it should.
During the 2011-12 campaign, the C's posted a 15-17 record through 32 games, only to completely turn the tables and go 24-10 the rest of the way.
There were plenty of things that went right then, and there are hoards of factors going right this time, as well.
Of course, there are the obvious reasons—like Kevin Garnett playing out of his mind, Jeff Green becoming a monster off the bench and Avery Bradley absolutely hounding opposing guards night in and night out. However, it is the subtleties that can really put a ballclub over the top, and that is what we will be discussing here.
What have been the hidden keys to this surge by the Celtics?
1. Paul Pierce Taking on the Role of Distributor and More
Paul Pierce is averaging five assists per 36 minutes—the best number of his career. That is due in no small part to the fact that Rondo has been shelved, forcing Pierce to become more of a facilitator and to try to generate offense for his teammates.
Since Rondo's injury, Pierce is putting up 6.4 assists a game, an outstanding mark for a small forward. His assist percentage is 24.5 this year, a lifetime best. Clearly, Pierce saw the need to up as a distributor when Boston's floor general went down, and he has done as much as anyone could ask for in that regard.
It's also worth mentioning that The Truth has also ramped up his rebounding effort in Rajon's absence. It's no secret that Rondo was an excellent rebounder for a point guard, so losing him also carried the potential of hurting the C's on the glass. Enter Pierce, who is averaging 7.7 boards with Rondo out of the lineup. Just another impressive notch in the captain's belt.
2. Chris Wilcox Having Arguably the Best Season of His Career
You're probably thinking something along the lines of, "What are you talking about? Chris Wilcox averaged 13 and seven a couple of years with the Seattle Supersonics. How could this be the best season of his career?"
Well, take a look at this: Wilcox is averaging .183 shares per 48 minutes, by far his top mark. His next best? .138 in 2005-06.
The fact is that Wilcox has been absolutely huge for this team, shooting an insane 70.9 percent from the floor (a career high by leaps and bounds) and is also recording 1.3 blocks and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes, both lifetime bests.
The nice thing about Wilcox is that he doesn't try to do too much and, as a result, has an extraordinary shot selection. It's not like he is shooting nearly 71 percent off 15 shots. He has actually taken 117 shots thus far, and of those 117 attempts, 82 of them have been at the rim. That is 70 percent. Funny how that's virtually the same number as his actual field-goal percentage, huh?
Some don't realize how important Wilcox is to the Celtics. He has had an impact on both ends of the floor and will play a significant role in a potential playoff run.
3. Courtney Lee Playing Better on Both Ends
Remember early on when many were calling Courtney Lee a bust of an acquisition and some were even upset over the fact that Boston gave up E'Twaun Moore for his services? Well, those days are long gone.
In February, Lee shot 47.4 percent from the floor and hit on 41.8 percent of his three-point tries. So far this month, he is shooting at a 48.1 percent clip overall and is connecting on 37.5 percent of his long-range attempts.
Lee's minutes have increased exponentially since Rondo was lost, playing 28.3 minutes per game in February and 30.4 minutes a night through eight games in March. He only got 19.5 a contest in January. With that augmented floor time has come better, more consistent play.
Lee looks extremely confident at all times, comprising arguably the league's best perimeter defense with Bradley. The duo has been so effective that they are now being called "The Pitbulls." Of course, Courtney himself gave he and Avery that nickname, but it is fitting.
Lee's advanced metrics have been steadily improving as the season has progressed, as well. His true shooting percentage of 54.6 is his best since his rookie year, and so is his effective field-goal percentage of 51.9. His assist rate of 11.9 percent is his greatest mark, and the same goes for his 1.7 steals per 36 minutes.
Let's remember that with Rondo out, Lee has been thrust into the starting role for good. When he was starting early on in the season, he knew he was going to the bench when Bradley returned. Now, he knows he is a permanent starter, and that feeling of finality has to be comforting. Perhaps that is one of the main factors of Lee's surge.
The 6'5" will rarely stand out on the stat sheet, but when you watch the games, you clearly see his effect on the court.
4. Improved Three-Point Defense
During the first two months, the Celtics' three-point defense left much to be desired. In November, opponents shot 36 percent from downtown against Boston. The following month, that number jumped to a whopping 38.2 percent. That is when the C's buckled down, and it's no coincidence that it coincided with Bradley's return.
Since that awful start, the Celtics' three-point defense has improved by the month. In January, opposing teams hit on 31.6 percent of their attempts from long range. In February, that percentage fell to 30.3. That brings us to March, where Boston is currently smothering opponents to the tune of a 27.3 percent clip from beyond the arc.
Thanks to their incredible perimeter defense since the beginning of the new year, the C's are now second in opponent's three-point percentage (only the Indiana Pacers are better).
This has obviously limited what the opposition can do offensively against the Celtics, and it has resulted in quite a bit of success.
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