Archive for December, 2011

Using advanced stats to explain Paul Pierce’s performance

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Paul Pierce had a strong debut for the Celtics. (AP)

Paul Pierce had a good game against the Pistons. He didn’t play very much — just 23 minutes — and he didn’t put up huge numbers in the box score: 12 points, four rebounds, five assists, in a game that wasn’t close. The Celtics won rather easily, 96-85, against a rebuilding team that isn’t very good right now, so it’s not like this one will go down in the Pierce pantheon.

Still, anyone who watched could tell you that Pierce played well in a game where no one performance really stood out besides Jermaine O’Neal‘s 19 points.

Ray Allen and Brandon Bass each had 17 points. Rajon Rondo had five assists. Nothing really stands out but a look at the regular box score will tell you that five different players had eight or more shots and that no one had more than eleven. They had assists on 25 of their 35 shots and generally looked like the Celtics we’ve known over the years.

Was there a Pierce effect?

“Just having Paul, space is so different,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “It was amazing how the ball moved today again.”

So, having Pierce back in the lineup helped the Celtics play like themselves. That feels right, and just as importantly that’s what the players thought as well. But how much did he really affect the game? This was Kevin Garnett‘s take:

“The scoring overshadows the small things that he does,” Garnett. “He has a very, very high basketball IQ, and he’s very talkative on the court. He knows how to play. And he’s willing to give the ball up on his own. When you make sacrifices like that, when you’re P Pierce, it impact everybody and that gets overshadowed sometimes by the scoring.”

Garnett didn’t need advanced metrics or wonky stats to reach that conclusion but the numbers back him up. Or maybe it’s the other way around. One of the fun things about writing about the Celtics is that they really understand why they’re successful and that’s what advanced stats reveal the most: Who really played well and who didn’t.

The Celtics aren’t into numbers like points, rebounds and assists. They rarely use them to describe each other’s performances, or their own. You’re often likely to get admonished just for bringing up something like how many points someone scored. They’re also not into statistics like Usage Rate, Assist Percentage and Points Created because they’re old school and don’t need weird terms to tell them what they already know.

We don’t have 15 years experience in the NBA, but we do have Hoopdata’s box score and that may be the next best thing. This is what it tells us:

Pierce didn’t dominate with his scoring. He took only eight shots and six of them were either long-range jumpers or 3-point shots. He drove to the basket once early in the game, which demonstrated that yes, he was back, and he hit a nifty isolation jumper that also proved that his skills were still there.

Pierce was efficient, needing only eight shots to score his 12 points. When you account for his two 3-pointers and two made free throws, Pierce’s True Shooting Percentage was 68 percent, but he didn’t dominate the game with his scoring.

Indeed the Celtics had five different players record True Shooting percentages over 67 percent, which showed they were not only balanced they were highly successful. Pierce was one of the main reasons. He had 39 percent of the team’s assists when he was on the floor, a number that would rank with the best point guards in the league.

While the Celtics racked up 25 assists overall, 12 of them went to long-range jump shots and 3-pointers. That speaks to ball movement and is one of the team’s trademarks, but what Pierce did was play facilitator. He had five assists and three of them led to shots directly at the rim. Another came within 10 feet of the basket and the last one was within 15 feet. In other words, Pierce’s passing led to easy scores for his teammates.

The Celtics didn’t play a perfect game. They allowed 12 offensive rebounds and 17 second-chance points. (They really did play like last year’s team). But Pierce grabbed 24 percent of the defensive rebounds when he was on the floor, the second-best rate on the team behind O’Neal.

Pierce may not have been the best player on the floor, but you can make a very good argument that he was the most effective in his limited minutes. To put it another way, he had a really good game.

Jermaine O’Neal’s breakthrough performance

Saturday, December 31st, 2011


Celtics coach Doc Rivers has called Jermaine O’Neal the MVP of training camp, but once the season began O’Neal struggled to make an impact. On Friday night against Detroit, however, everyone saw what Rivers noticed during the shortened preseason. O’Neal made himself a presence both on offense and defense, putting together his best performance as a Celtic with 19 points, the most he’s score in a Boston uniform, and seven rebounds.

“He was huge [tonight],” said guard, Ray Allen. “He showed his length, his presence, [and] he rotated over to make guys miss around the basket. Then he made his shots. He played a great game for us.”

O’Neal was active from the opening tip. In the first quarter he had four field goal attempts. O’Neal had been averaging four attempts a game this season. By halftime his aggressive play earned him four trips to the foul line. He had accumulated just three free throw attempts all season. In the third quarter O’Neal helped put the game out of reach, scoring seven points (on 3-for-3 shooting), with four rebounds and two blocked shots.

O’Neal also stayed out of foul trouble which has plagued him in the young season. This enabled the 15-year veteran to get into the ebb and flow of the game. “I’ve always been a rhythm player,” O’Neal said. “Looking at the first couple of games, I was in-and-out so fast.”

Allen felt it was important for O’Neal to see some continuity in terms of playing time, especially early in the season. “You almost need to get tired and fight through it,” Allen said. “[O'Neal] had an opportunity to fight through it and get comfortable out there. He seemed like he had his legs underneath him.”

O’Neal had been averaging 4.3 fouls per game, which he said made him tentative on the court. And although he did pick up five fouls against the Pistons, O’Neal was able to play 28 minutes as opposed to the 20 he had averaged throughout the first three games.

Even with his season starting poorly, O’Neal said he never lost confidence in his ability to bounce back. “The way the season is built, you have to stay positive,” O’Neal said. “You’re going to get an opportunity to try and comeback in another night or two nights.”

The 33-year-old veteran said he felt this was his best offensive performance as a Celtic, but doesn’t feel that this is his primary role. Instead O’Neal listed grabbing rebounds, protecting the rim, and setting screens as the contributions he is being asked to provide.

“Scoring is going to come and go,” he said.  ”Obviously I don’t want to be judged off how many points I score. That’s not my role on this team. People have asked me why I’ve accepted other roles, but that’s what you do on championship teams. You accept your role, you own it.”

O’Neal may not be the perennial All-Star player he once was, but he played like one on Friday.

Paul Pierce: ‘I was expecting to be me’

Saturday, December 31st, 2011


The box score may have read just 12 points in 23 minutes for Paul Pierce in the first game of his 14th NBA season Friday night, helping the Celtics beat the Pistons, 96-85, at TD Garden for their first win of the season.

But more than that, the Celtics captain felt good about his ailing right heel. After bruising the heel just before the opening of camp on Dec. 9, he took part in just one practice with the team before being reduced to watching practice from the sidelines.

He had to watch in a suit on the sidelines as the Celtics dropped their first three games for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

“It felt good to finally get back out there with my teammates,” Pierce said. “Didn’t have much practice time, just have to get in shape in these games and just feels good to be out there.”

What were his expectations after just one practice and no games to get him in basketball shape?

“I was expecting to be me,” Pierce said. “I don’t settle for anything less. I work tremendously hard. I did a lot of things and did what I could do, other than practice. I just stayed focused, got my shots every day, I was on the [exercise] bike, and Doc [Doc Rivers] wanted me to be aggressive and just play the way I play, and that’s what I tried to do.

“It felt good. I think the rest of my body is a little bit more sore than anything, since I haven’t had any physical contact or up-and-down basketball in quite a while.”

After six points in 15 minutes in the first half, Kevin Garnett found Pierce open for a pair of threes early in the third quarter, as the Celtics put the game away with a 36-21 spurt.

“We moved the ball, with Kevin making the two passes, wide open for the threes and I just wanted to try to be aggressive,” Pierce said. “Everything is going to come if I just continue to play hard. The timing, the chemistry, it will all come. I’m not going to hold anything back. So, I’m just going to go out there and continue to play the way I play.”

As impressive as his six points in four minutes of the third quarter were, his presence bolstered a smothering Celtics defense, something that had been missing in three losses. (more…)

Fast Break: Paul Pierce returns, and so does winning for the Celtics

Friday, December 30th, 2011


Paul Pierce returned and all is right with the Celtics world. The captain didn’t try to dominate the action in his first game of the season. Rather he turned in a coolly efficient offensive game that saw him score 12 points on just eight shots with four rebounds and five assists in 23 minutes of work as the Celtics rolled to a 96-85 win.

Pierce’s effect on his teammates was evident. Kevin Garnett threw a blind bounce pass to the wing that found Pierce’s hands. He was once again the bailout option on offense and the ball movement and spacing were much crisper than they had been in the first three games. Also with Pierce back in the lineup, the Celtics were able to play a solid 10-man rotation that included Sasha Pavlovic as the backup guard.

It didn’t click right away but by the third quarter the Celtics had opened up a 25-point lead and looked like a completely different team than the one we saw in the first three games.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Jermaine O’Neal had a much-needed breakout performance, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 29 minutes of work. O’Neal scored in transition and in the half court and more than doubled his point total for the season.

Ray Allen was 5-for-8 and perfect from the free throw line for 15 points. People expect Allen to make every shot and his greatness is sometimes taken for granted, but even for him his first four games have been tremendous.Allen is shooting 60 percent for the season and hasn’t missed a free throw in 14 attempts.

– The third quarter has been the Celtics’ best by far this season and it was again on Friday when they outscored Detroit 36-21 while shooting 71 percent from the field. They have outscored their opponents, 124-84 in third quarters so far this season.

– Offensive balance — a forgotten concept in the first thee games — made its return to the stat sheet as five different players had at least eight shots and none had more than eleven.

– The reserves were also balanced in a way that made sense. Brandon Bass did most of the scoring with 17 points on just 11 shots, but Keyon Dooling did a fine job running the offense and getting everyone involved with four assists. In other words, the reserve players performed their roles.

– The Celtics got to the free throw line 19 times and made every shot, and more importantly, only allowed 15 to the Pistons. To be sure, Detroit helped immensely by jacking long jump shots, but the Celtics had been -15 at the free throw line through three games.

WHAT WENT WRONG

– Young center Greg Monroe had his way with the Celtics, scoring 22 points. He was too quick for O’Neal and too strong for Greg Stiemsma, who will have his issues in isolation situations against some of the better offensive players in the league. This will be a reoccurring theme throughout the year, and it could have been a lot worse if the Pistons didn’t inexplicably do everything but get Monroe the ball.

Live Blog: Celtics look for first win in home opener against Pistons

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Danny Ainge on Big Show: Paul Pierce close to returning, Celtics ‘horrendous’ defensively, Heat beatable

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Danny Ainge isn't worried just yet. (AP)

Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge joined The Big Show Friday, expressing disappointment in the team’s 0-3 start to the season, but saying he ultimately isn’t overly concerned.

Forward Paul Pierce has yet to play this season due to a bone bruise on his right heel, but Ainge said he might be available Friday night against the Pistons.

“Paul is doing better this morning,” Ainge said. “I think it will be a game-time decision with the trainer and just sort of how he feels pre-game. It’s looking better, and we’re very encouraged that he’s going to be back soon.”

Ainge said he is not worried the injury could nag Pierce throughout the season.

“I’m not worried that it’s going to linger now,” he said. “I mean, I think that had he started to play when he really wanted to play, which is opening night, I was worried about it then, but the rest has been beneficial for Paul. Even though the team has missed paul, it’s been better for him to not play these first three games.”

There’s plenty that Pierce brings to the table, and Ainge said the team has missed him in key situations in the second halves of games.

“Paul is our best forward. Him and Ray [Allen], the combination of them makes it a double-edged sword. You have to really have two good defenders out there on the wings at all times. You have to have the attention on the floor spread. And he’s a closer. Having two closers out there, Ray has played very well offensively for us, but we need another weapon. Paul has been greatly missed on the offensive end, and probably closing games more than beginning games. It would be nice to have him out there, no question.”

As for the team’s play, Ainge said that while he’s unhappy with the start, it’s clear that they’re playing without one of their top players in Pierce.

“Obviously we feel 0-3 is not good,” he said. “It would have been nice to win one or two of the games anyway, starting off with the tough schedule. I think that I’m not worried about it because we haven’t had Paul, and we’re not in sync. This is not our team. I’ve also watched every team play so far in the early season, and it’s very common. There’s a lot of teams that are out of sync, have a lot of new players and a lot of new faces. I’m not overly worried right now. I think this next couple of weeks will tell us a little bit more about who we are.”

Added Ainge: “We are out of sync. Our defense has been horrendous, actually. We’ve had some good moments, some good stretches, and ironically our zone defense has probably been better than our man-to-man defense. Our man-to-man defense is definitely out of sync, and we’ve missed the continuity of having Paul out there, but the guys that have replaces – Marquis [Daniels] has done a decent job and Sasha [Pavlovic] has done a decent job — it’s more of we just haven’t done a good job. I think Ray and Rajon [Rondo] and [Kevin Garnett], guys that have been here in the past, all need to do a better job of stopping the ball. … We’ve got to stop the penetration and do a better job on the perimeter and not put so much pressure on the interior defense.”

Swingman Mickael Pietrus, whom the team signed prior to the season, is still getting familiar with the team’s system and has yet to play this season.

“He’s not ready,” Ainge said. “He’s going to be fine. He just needs a week or 10 days to get in game shape and get familiar with our set. … Pietrus is probably anywhere from a week to two weeks away. We don’t have an exact date yet.”

The Celtics’ second loss of the season came to Heat, who are favorites to win it all this season. Ainge said the Heat, who eliminated the C’s last season in the playoffs, are good, but not invincible.

“They’re definitely the favorites. I don’t believe they’re unbeatable. I believe they’re very good, and they probably should be the favorites, but time will tell. It’s a long season — it’s actually a short season, but a lot of games in a short amount of time — and we’ll be able to answer that question a little later in the year.”

Celtics vs. Pistons: Stats and trends

Friday, December 30th, 2011

It’s way too early to make sweeping statements about the Celtics, but a few items have stood out in their 0-3 start. The big takeaway is their defense has been atrocious. They are allowing 113.1 points per 100 possessions, the second-worst mark in the league, per basketball-reference.

Their interior defense has clearly slipped and they are getting scorched from the 3-point line where teams are shooting almost 50 percent. Their biggest problem, however has been at the free throw line where they have allowed 94 free throws, the second-most behind the Mavericks. The good news is they have been getting to the line at a decent rate themselves, but they are -15 in free throw points.

Oddly, the Celtics have been getting killed in the first quarter at the line where they have allowed 20 free throws and shot just three during the last two games. That’s the biggest reason for the discrepancy because they have been essentially equal in the next three quarters.

The one positive trend for the Celtics has been their third-quarter production where they have outscored their opponents, 88-63 while shooting 63 percent (34-for-54) from the field. This has held constant in all three games beginning with an inspired 35-17 run to open the second half against the Knicks.

Overall, their offense has been performing at a league average rate and what success they have had, is mainly coming from four players: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Keyon Dooling and Brandon Bass.

Allen has posted unreal shooting numbers of .588/.632/1.000 on two’s, three’s and free throws respectively. For those keeping track his .8111 True Shooting Percentage is the best in the league. Bass has supplied 14.7 points per game off the bench and is shooting 50 percent,. Rondo has been to the free throw line 27 times and is shooting an almost-respectable 67 percent, while Dooling has been an offensive energizer with his shooting.

Their biggest issue has been turnovers where they rank 30th in turnover rate. It’s been a team-wide issue from Rondo, Allen and Dooling to role players like Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic. The Celtics are simply giving away far too many possessions.

Enter the Pistons who may be coming along at exactly the right time for a team that desperately needs their first win of the season. Detroit has struggled out of the gate, losing big to Indiana and Cleveland. Here’s how they profile:

DETROIT (0-2)

Offensive Rating: 95.4 (26th)

Defensive Rating: 111.3 (27th)

Pace: 88 possessions (25th)

Probable Starters: Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, Tayshaun Prince, Jonas Jerebko, Greg Monroe

Rotation: Brandon Knight, Austin Daye, Jason Maxiell, Ben Wallace

Who to watch: Jerebko is an active player who gets his points in transition and on the offensive boards. The Celtics will have to account for him. Knight is coming off a 23-point performance against the Cavs.

CELTICS (0-3)

Offensive Rating: 102.7 (16th)

Defensive Rating: 113.1 (29th)

Pace: 93.8 (10th)

Probable Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Sasha Pavlovic, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal

Rotation: Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, Brandon Bass

Injuries: Paul Pierce (Heel, questionable), Chris Wilcox (Shoulder, questionable) Mickael Pietrus (Knee, out).

Who to watch: Pierce, if he plays. Garnett should have a matchup advantage with Jerebko, but he will have to keep up with Jerebko’s energy.