Celtics are great in transition, but not great at getting out and running

Early in the season, the Celtics and first-year head coach Joe Mazzulla focused on picking up the pace.

In their season opener, the Celtics executed the fast break effectively and often; The C’s outscored the Sixers 24-2(!) in transition and looked like one of the most dangerous teams on the open court.

Mazulla commented on the team’s successful transition after the game: “I think [playing fast] is a strength of our team.

They didn’t keep it, however.

In subsequent games, the Celtics only scored 12, 18, and 10 points in transition. On the season, they rank 25th in the NBA in transition frequency (how often a team creates an offense per transition) with just 22.7% of their offense on the fast break.

Why did they take their foot off the accelerator pedal?

Well, it’s certainly not because they haven’t been effective and powerful when they have shoot.

The men in green score on 56% of their transition opportunities, ranked fourth in the entire NBA. They also give up on just 3% of their transition opportunities, the lowest number in the league. These are really promising numbers despite only four games in the season.

Simply put: the Celtics don’t run often at all. But when they do, they’re incredibly effective. They create more points than most other teams (by scoring or reaching the foul line), and they return it less than any other team in transition. So they should do it more!

What makes it work?

Jayson Tatum is the leader of the snake. Remember last season when opposing players gave up on Freight Train Tatum in order to stop the fast break? Well, you can’t do that anymore (well, you can, it’s just not a good strategy if you care about winning), and Tatum was unleashed on the court.

Tatum is scoring 1.29 points per possession in transition (8th in the NBA for skilled players), and it’s easy to see why he’s so effective with his opportunities. His 6’8 (6’10?), 210-pound frame combined with his elite ball-handling ability make him one of the most formidable covers in the NBA. Unlike most players of his size, he is able to move laterally and fluidly in transition while remaining balanced and holding his head up to seek out open teammates. There are few players in the entire league with his physical tools and skills on the ball, and watching him in transition is perhaps the easiest way to notice that.

It doesn’t end with Tatum, however. Every Celtics rotation player can bring Something at the table during the break. Jaylen can use his athleticism and enhanced finishing ability (especially with his left hand) to be effective in situations similar to Tatum’s.

Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Marcus Smart, while not as difficult to stop at full speed, are all excellent decision makers who can find open teammates and handle the ground well.

Al Horford and Noah Vonleh – two big above average in conditioning and speed – are perfect for the break. And Grant Williams. Well, Grant Williams can fit into any attacking scheme with his ability to shoot all three and move the ball.

More importantly, every aforementioned player (aside from Vonleh) is capable of hitting the three-ball, which spaces out defenses and allows for easy driving lanes when the defense comes back (if you’re playing against the Lakers, on the other hand side, the defense just sprints towards the paint and doesn’t worry about Pat Beverley, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis or Lonnie Walker getting all three shots).

The same reasons the Celtics’ defense was effective last year – athleticism, versatility, speed – are the same reasons the Celtics should to be one of the best transition teams in the NBA. And, they are… when they actually do.

You can’t push it if you can’t get it

The Celtics’ ability (or lack thereof) to rebound defensively has certainly hampered their ability to get out and run. Boston is in the bottom half of the league in defensive rebound percentage (71.4%), and it’s hard to push the ball when you get it out from under the basket on about 30% of the possessions you get. Without solving the defensive rebound problem, it will be difficult for the Celtics to get out and run more, but that’s just another reason why the return of Robert Williams – or the potential for a big trade via – should improve the game. Celtics overall outlook. (apart from the obvious defensive worries).

About Alexander Estrada

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