In the past few years, the Boston Celtics' club motto has basically been "destroy opponents with rabid brick wall defense" and, conversely, with the ball in their hands "use up 20 seconds of the shot clock with unproductive activity, then hope for the best."
They ended last season with an offense that was slightly more effective than the Toronto Raptors, and slightly less effective than the New Jersey Nets (two teams that finished last and second to last in the Atlantic Division).
In a Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals showdown against Miami (and, to a lesser extent, a Game 7 Eastern Conference Semifinals showdown against Philadelphia), the Celtics offense was morbid down the stretch. No possessions were simple exercises of offensive execution. They were an easy team to defend in the half court, and despite putting forth a brilliant defensive effort, their inability to get open shots was what ultimately led to their demise.
The Celtics were always an above-average basketball team primarily due to their focus on defense and their decision to establish that side of the ball as an overwhelming strength. With Hall of Fame players like Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce all able to bail out the offense with a decent to good ability to make shots, it clicked. But as they've gotten older, their offense has stuttered.
If the Celtics want to favorably compete with the Eastern Conference's best (aka Miami), they'll need to consistently score points while keeping their defense at a high level.
One theory on why they played so poorly throughout the month of December can be explained by looking at who it is they invested in over the offseason. Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa, Jason Terry, Brandon Bass and Jeff Green were targeted and acquired on long-term deals. Those players are all known primarily for their offensive abilities, and in some cases (Barbosa, Terry) have yet to be caught on tape playing any defense whatsoever.
It was Danny Ainge admitting to everyone paying attention that his team's offense has been a serious problem, and it was time to improve it significantly. But overhauling their "identity" won't be a see-saw process, where offense goes up and defense goes down. It'll instead be a balancing of the two, similar to what's transpired in San Antonio, where their primary championship identity used to be defense. Since, they’ve shifted, understanding the league’s trending tendencies and reacting accordingly.
Playing a bunkered-down style, grinding out possession by possession with fierce defensive rotations might not be the best thing right now for Garnett and some of the other veterans on this team. That isn't to say defense gets thrown out the window, but simple adjustments are already being made that show this team's commitment to scoring easier points.
They're averaging 12.9 fast-break points per game, which is right at league average and tied with Miami. The Celtics are also averaging 17 points off turnovers per game, which is above league average and a great indicator that they’re pushing the ball up the court off turnovers instead of slowing things down and pounding possessions into the ground.
Look at both of these baskets. Both are quick, and both speed up the game's tempo.
(Last season, they averaged 12 fast-break points per game, but it was a lockout-shortened season and they ranked well below league average. Their points off turnovers were also down.)
As they’ve quietly shifted to a youth-based basketball team—behind the likes of Rondo, Green and Avery Bradley—the Celtics appear to be built for more of a free style that focuses on quick ball movement, three-point shooting and an uptick in possessions per 48 minutes. (Right now they rank ninth in true shooting percentage, but they’re still playing about as slow as the Knicks. It's a process, but they're moving on up.)
So far, the offense has been a major disappointment, with the Celtics hovering around as a bottom-10 group for much of the season. Right now they’re averaging fewer points per possession than Sacramento, New Orleans, Detroit and Phoenix. But they’re showing promise and a turn for the better.
A lot of that can be attributed to the old NBA adage that it’s a “make or miss league,” and a ton of open looks from the likes of Bass, Terry and (especially) Lee haven’t fallen. The Celtics' talent level and versatile collection of personnel suggests that as the season goes on their offense should improve, especially with Bradley restoring things to order. And when it does, they’ll be more suited to compete with elite teams that have already made scoring the basketball a top priority.