WALTHAM, Mass. -- The Boston Celtics headed to practice Monday owning the seventh-best offensive rating in the NBA. That's a whopping 20 spots higher than where the team finished last season, and maybe the craziest part is that there's still plenty of room for improvement.
All small sample-size asterisks apply here -- and it's just as shocking that Boston sits 25th in defensive rating to this point, though it would seem both sides of the ball will eventually even out a bit -- but to anyone who observed the Celtics' offense last season, this early-season vault seems a bit improbable.
Remember that Boston's offense was grossly anemic last season -- with and without Rajon Rondo -- while averaging a meager 99.7 points per 100 possessions. What's more, Boston played at a middle-of-the-pack pace of 95.88 possessions per 48 minutes, which often led to the team getting bogged down in a half-court offense that ranked 29th in efficiency, barely ahead of a tanking Philadelphia team and its star-less roster.
With an eye toward maximizing his team's strengths this season, second-year coach Brad Stevens put an emphasis on pace and space. The Celtics have responded by cranking the tempo -- now averaging 99.18 possessions per 48 minutes, fourth best in the league -- and their offensive rating has ballooned to 107.1 with just about everyone pitching in.
"We're just getting up and down, it's really fluid, moving the ball well," said second-year center Kelly Olynyk, who is averaging 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds over 27 minutes per game. "Everyone is contributing and everyone is a threat."
But here's the catch: Boston hasn't shot the 3-pointer nearly as well as it suggested it might in the preseason, it's not getting to the free throw line with much regularity, and it's been plagued by turnovers. So while Stevens doesn't want his players overreacting to early-season success, he can't help but admit there's potential for the team to be an even better offensive squad.
"It's exactly what I saw when I looked at the stat sheet [Sunday] -- we haven't shot [the 3-pointer] great yet, so that's really encouraging," said Stevens. "We've got to get to the free throw line more, but I assume, once you start shooting it better, [opponent] closeouts get harder, then you can drive it more. But we gotta start making some shots at a better rate -- which we will do. I think we're better shooters than we've shot it so far."
Here's a look at just how uncanny the Celtics' offensive success has been.
So what gives? The Celtics, despite their overall lack of pure size, have been among the rebounding elite this season. Boston leads the league in offensive rebound rate and has parlayed that into ranking fourth in second-chance points. The Celtics are also sixth in total rebound percentage, which means they are limiting opponents' second chances and giving themselves an opportunity to create in transition.
The increased tempo and all those offensive rebounds leave Boston tops in the league in field goal attempts and second in points (106.3 per game). The Green are sixth in field goal percentage (47.4 percent), suggesting they're making good things happen when they take care of the ball -- even if it's not coming as much beyond the 3-point arc as expected.
"I think the [offensive] mindset is pretty good," said Stevens. "I think that the stuff that we are trying to do hopefully fits our personnel. Clearly, the pace has helped. I think the biggest key is just continuing to play unselfishly. And I think, as a result, we've rebounded better on offense. Not because all of a sudden we're 7-foot-2 and the best rebounders in the world, but because the ball is moving and we're creating rotations and then we've got run-ins to rebound."
Now, part of Boston's offensive success has come from sheer necessity. Four of the team's six games this season have come against the top offenses in the league (Dallas, Brooklyn, Toronto and Chicago). The Celtics have had to score points to give themselves a chance to hang around against those squads.
As the team gathered for practice on Monday, players were set to dive into film in which Stevens hinted he'd be showcasing how the team's offense hasn't been quite as crisp as the numbers might suggest. And ranking in the basement of the league defensively absolutely will not sit well with Stevens.
"We have a long way to go," he said. "That's why I talk about [how] these are great film sessions because you get a chance to define reality. Sometimes reality is great; sometimes reality has a lot to work on."