How the Boston Celtics Are Playing Up-Tempo Basketball

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How the Boston Celtics Are Playing Up-Tempo Basketball
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For all intents and purposes, the Boston Celtics are not an old basketball team.

Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry are all veterans with indispensable roles and over a century of years on this planet between them, but every other contributor is spry, athletic and can hold his own against the most vigorous lineups in the league.

Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass all sit between the ages of 20 and 27, and Leandro Barbosa and Chris Wilcox are both 30. The youth here helps in many ways, especially when it comes to dictating their overall speed of play. 

Boston's offense these last few seasons has been...stiff. It's an ongoing struggle trademarked with no ball movement and forced, low percentage, contested jump shots with the shot clock racing to zero.

This season they've been much better, averaging three more points per 100 possessions through the season's opening month than last year's 66 regular season games.

The sudden mushroom of youth has allowed Celtics head coach Doc Rivers to wisely instruct his players to push the ball off defensive rebounds, turnovers and even, in opportune cases, made shots. Here are two quick (no pun intended) examples of the Celtics running their lanes and advancing the ball up the court with a lengthy pass, the easiest way to speed up a possession and get as many shots at the basket in a single game as possible. 

Pace is an advanced statistic that measures how many possessions a team averages per 48 minutes. It's useful in evaluating how a team is moving up and down the court, and what type of tempo they prefer to harness.

According to NBA.com/Stats, the youngest team in basketball (Houston) is also the fastest, leading the league with an average of 97.95 possessions per 48 minutes. The Celtics rank 14th with a pace of 94.77, nearly two possessions per 48 minutes more than they averaged last season when they were one of the eight slowest teams in basketball.

Their increase in possessions has been justified with a surge in easy baskets: Boston is averaging 13.6 fast break points per game, an above average tally so far this season. (Last season they ranked 19th in the league with 12.0 per game.) Also, Synergy Sports has the Celtics ranked as the 15th best transition team in basketball, scoring 1.13 points per possession.

Straddling the line of average in any offensive category is a major step in the right direction for a team that's been a nightmare on that side of the ball in recent years. It should come as no surprise that Boston's two best players are right at the forefront. 

When Rondo and Garnett share the court together, the Celtics average 16.9 fast break points per 48 minutes, which would tie the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks for first in the league. Lineups that pair these two are averaging 96.38 possessions per 48 minutes. 

The Celtics have struggled mightily on both ends of the court when Garnett comes out of the game. One might think a remedy for the situation would be to slow things down—limiting offensive possessions for the opponent—but when done that idea looked too much like a band-aid trying to stall a hemorrhaging wound.

In an effort to smooth things out, Rivers has instead decided to do the exact opposite, instructing his team to run like a man with sensitive feet through hot coals. In the team's last eight games, the Rondo/Terry/Pierce/Bass/Chris Wilcox five-man unit has averaged 101.63 possessions per 48 minutes—super fast.

The offense hasn't been perfect, and sometimes a coach has no answers for the most obvious questions, but Rivers has decided to make the best of it by unleashing somewhat of a controlled chaos to confuse the opponent when Garnett comes off the floor.

It's better than nothing, and on the surface it's helped.

The relationship between defensive stops and fast break points is very real, and very important. But forcing an offense into a missed shot isn't the same as creating a turnover, and as early as last season the Celtics preferred to foster a methodical (often miserable) half-court offense instead of pushing the ball and forcing the issue. 

On top of having new personnel capable of accelerating a twist in philosophy, the Celtics have done a much better job of ending opponent's possessions and beginning their own. Last season they grabbed 72.4 percent of all defensive rebounds available, which ranked 19th in the league. This year they've bumped that up to 74.3 percent, good for sixth best. 

All the shots created in the clips used for this article were the result of excellent defensive play resulting in a rebound and instantaneous outlet. 

Smothering offenses won't eradicate itself as a crucial aspect of Boston's basketball personality as long as Kevin Garnett is serving as an anchor, but improving the offense remains necessary if this franchise is serious about winning a title.

Right now grabbing rebounds and pushing the basketball is the best recipe for success for the most athletic group Boston's had since re-creating themselves as realistic championship contenders five seasons ago.  

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