WALTHAM, Mass. -- Brad Stevens is not losing sleep over the number of whistles his team has encountered this season. A big part of his defensive philosophy calls for physical play and, given that Boston is undersized up front, it's maybe somewhat expected that his team will incur more personal fouls than most.
In fact, Stevens thinks his team's foul numbers might dip with an increased physicality moving forward.
A look at the percentage of shooting fouls committed by Celtics players during the 2013-14 season:
"There’s a lot [that could help the Celtics drive down fouls], and that could also limit their aggressiveness, so there’s some positives and some negatives to being too concerned about fouling," Stevens said. "The other thing is, when you’re undersized and you play tentatively, you tend to foul more. So I think when you’re playing more physical and more aggressive, within the rules and limits of the game, you tend to foul less because you’re more focused on making contact early than reacting."
The Celtics commit 21.5 fouls per 48 minutes, which is the 10th highest total in the league, and opponents shoot 24.7 free throws per 48 minutes (the eighth highest total in the league). Maybe those numbers leap off the page more because Boston opponents average only 18.7 fouls per 48 minutes (fifth lowest total in the league) and Boston has a mere 20.5 attempts per 48 minutes (the sixth lowest total). The Celtics rank 23rd in opponent free throw rate (a measure of how often an opponent shoots free throws compared to field goal attempts), and have the league's ninth lowest total themselves.
You can practically hear Tommy Heinsohn's blood pressure rising as you read this.
Maybe the most important number to hone in on is amount of shooting fouls being committed. Shooting fouls are putting opponents at the line with a chance for easy points. Boston ranks 21st in the league committing shooting fouls on 9.1 percent of opponent's possessions, according to Synergy Sports defensive data. Opponents shoot free throws on 12.3 percent of total possessions (the eighth highest mark in the league).
"There’s a lot of things in a perfect world that you’d like to have a lot better," Stevens said. "But I don’t lose sleep at night necessarily over the number of fouls right now. I think a lot of it has to do with being undersized, and playing 4s at the 5. Even some of our wings are small compared to some of the guys we are playing against."
Maybe not surprisingly, rookie Kelly Olynyk is the team's primary offender (see chart above). Rookie bigs often struggle to avoid whistles. Just ask Jared Sullinger, who smiles wide and won't touch the question when asked if he was a victim of rookie whistles.
But he does admit he's learned some secrets to avoiding fouls.
"You've just got to show your hands more," Sullinger said. "Play with your hands up. I have a year under my belt, and so they pretty much know how I play and it’s just taking time to get used to know how you play. They know I play physical now, so they kind of let some of the ticky-tack ones go. On top of that, I’m smarter now. Before last year, I used to reach, I used to put myself in bad position. Now I’m there on time, and just doing the right things to help our team to win."
Sullinger's shooting foul rate of just 6.1 percent is staggering considering the size he often gives up against opposing frontlines. He's found a way to make things tough on opponents without putting them at the stripe. He's confident guys like Olynyk will figure it out as well.
"It just takes some time," Sullinger said. "It takes time and experience, honestly, to understand that you have to be there a second earlier than when [a veteran like] Brandon [Bass] has to be there. It's just written, written in the rules. You've got to play hard and understand that you are going to be a victim of some of those fouls depending on who you are guarding. You just have to accept it."
The Celtics engaged in a light practice session on Tuesday and were expecting a guest speaker after the session. Reporters met with the team before the session and all 14 players were on the court as the team went through skeleton drills to start the session. Rajon Rondo worked with the second unit as they went through offensive plays.