Forsberg: Celtics showcasing newfound depth as part of hot start originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Just five months ago, the Boston Celtics leaned heavily on an eight-man core while navigating a grueling run to the NBA Finals. Coach Ime Udoka seemed reluctant to reach any deeper despite his team running on fumes at the end of the playoff run.
Maybe one of the more encouraging aspects of Boston’s blistering start to the 2022-23 season has been the team’s ability to confidently lean on as many as 12 different players. And this despite operating without big men Robert Williams III and Danilo Gallinari, the latter of whom was brought in this summer to bolster Boston’s bench.
Boston’s depth was highlighted on Monday night when, with Al Horford resting on the second night of a back-to-back, and Boston’s other offseason big-splash addition Malcolm Brogdon sidelined due to illness, Boston didn’t miss a beat while leaning on depth pieces.
The theme of this week’s Forsberg Four segment on Celtics Post Up (Tuesday nights, 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Boston) focused on the unsung heroes that have played a key role in Boston’s early season dominance.
It’s quite a luxury when someone like Payton Pritchard, one of last year’s eight contributors, is now a 10th or 11th man. And yet he likely saved two wins (vs. Oklahoma City and Sacramento) with his energy alone. On Monday night in Toronto, 33-year-old Blake Griffin took the baton and provided an unexpected spark north of the border.
Let’s dive into the numbers:
7.6: That’s the average number of days in between Griffin’s appearances over his last five outings. Griffin, who is averaging four DNPs for every one start this season, is basically on a football schedule while suiting up once per week. But it’s hard to argue with the returns.
In his four starts, Griffin is averaging nine points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 71.4 percent from the field and 37.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He has produced three, turn-back-the-clock dunks over his last two appearances including a tomahawk alley-oop finish against the Hornets that nearly made Mfiondu Kabengele’s head explode.
When Griffin isn’t grabbing one-handed rebounds that delight the Boston bench or taking a hard charge, he’s got an arm slung around Pritchard’s shoulder telling him to stay ready.
Clearly, he’s practicing what he preaches.
Celtics Talk POSTGAME POD: Giving Blake Griffin his flowers after shorthanded C’s pull out the comeback win | Listen & Subscribe
Adding veterans can be hit or miss for championship-caliber teams. A guy like Griffin could yearn for his old superstar ways or sulk about a sporadic role. Just the opposite, he’s embraced every bit of his unique role in Boston and is making a legitimate impact on their this team’s title quest. Will he play in the postseason? Maybe not. But you know he’ll be ready whenever he is called upon.
MINUS-3%: That’s what opponents are shooting inside of 10 feet this season when defended by Sam Hauser.
That’s remarkable considering how opponents have been tripping all over themselves to go at Hauser. In the last two games alone, Kevin Durant and Pascal Siakam have both driven at Hauser in isolation and been unable to take full advantage.
Now, Hauser hasn’t been perfect. But he uses his size and competes. The Celtics have a defensive rating of 105.4 during Hauser’s floor time and that’s the best mark among regulars (by nearly three points, too).
What’s more, Hauser is allowing a mere 0.92 points per possession while defending in isolation. That’s the third-best number on the team behind only Jayson Tatum (0.73) and Derrick White (0.88). In fact, if you narrow to all players defending at least 1.5 isolations per game, Hauser is eighth overall in the NBA. (Now, James Harden is also in the top 8 so let’s remember small sample sizes).
38: That’s the number of screen assists this season for Luke Kornet.
For a Boston team missing its best screener in Williams III, Kornet is a welcome sight for all of Boston’s pick-and-roll ball-handlers. Those 38 screen assists are a team high, four more than Al Horford, who has logged 370 more minutes than Kornet this season.
Kornet uses his 7-foot-2 frame to help Boston players generate space and they’ve taken full advantage. Because the team relies so heavily on spacing and ball movement to generate good looks with its first unit, the addition of a bruising screener has gone a long way toward helping reserve groups generate consistent points.
Kornet has often paired with Pritchard to add a jolt of energy on the floor. Boston’s rebounding also ticks up with Kornet, including an 8 percent jump in offensive rebound rate during Kornet’s floor time.
Even better, Kornet doesn’t need touches of his own. He’s content to feast on putbacks and wide-open looks. He’s scoring 148.1 points per 100 shot attempts this season, which ranks in the 99th percentile among all big men, per Cleaning the Glass data.
6: That’s how many of Boston’s top 3-man lineups (minimum: 200 minutes of floor time) feature Derrick White.
White has been an analytics darling his entire career but the way Boston thrives regardless of who he’s paired with helps hammer home his ability to positively impact the team. It doesn’t matter if White is starting or coming off the bench, good things happen.
White is one of the main guys, so we’re conflicted by lumping him in a story spotlighting deep bench players. But the bigger point here is that White’s impact too often flies under the radar despite his heftier role.
White is fourth in the NBA in charge takes. He’s second on the team behind only Horford in total shots contested. NBA tracking data shows he spends seven percent of his floor time guarding centers and 33 percent more on forwards, showcasing his versatility.
If you want to have a fun argument with your Celtics-watching buddies, ask which Boston player would be the team’s third All-Star if someone other than Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum made the game. Marcus Smart would deservedly headline that conversation but you can make a pretty good argument for White or Malcolm Brogdon, too. The Celtics are spoiled with point guard depth now.
And depth in general.