BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics were set up to fail on the offensive end of the floor this season. A mismatched roster, combined with a sidelined floor general (Rajon Rondo) for the first three months of the year would understandably cause major issues for any NBA team, especially for one lacking serious offensive talent like the Celtics.
For the first 20 games of the season, Brad Stevens defied the odds and managed to keep his team competitive on the offensive end of the floor. Over the past month and a half however, the bottom has dropped out of the team’s offense. The team’s continuity was disrupted with the trades of Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee, as well as the addition of several new guards to the roster. Injuries to Avery Bradley, Jerryd Bayless, and Jared Sullinger also wreaked havoc on the team’s offensive play.
How bad had things become? Before Sunday’s win over Orlando, the Celtics had not shot over 50 percent in a game (a relatively normal occurrence for most NBA teams) for a staggering 26 games. Stevens was encouraged when his team finally managed to break that rough streak on Sunday.
“The thing I’m most excited about is that we had a 50 percent shooting day, because we’ve really struggled to shoot it recently,” Stevens acknowledged.
Boston’s problems on the offensive end over the last two months run deep. They were dead last in the NBA in shooting percentage from Dec. 7 up until Sunday’s game, making a lackluster 41.9 percent of their shots from the field.
The numbers were just as bad from beyond the arc, where the Celtics ranked 29th in the NBA in shooting percentage from 3-point range. With numbers like that, it’s easy to see how the Celtics managed to drop 19 of their last 23 games.
Sunday’s performance was the start of something positive though, as the Celtics had a fully healthy roster for the first time in weeks, which Stevens noted after the game.
“I think part of that [offensive performance] is Bayless getting back and healthy getting going, Avery getting going, and now you’ve got more threats on the court, opening shots for others and obviously Rondo making shots behind the screens,” Stevens said.
Rondo’s presence in the equation will prove to be the most pivotal factor in determining whether Boston’s offense can be turned around in the coming weeks.
After being expectedly rusty over the first six games of his return, Rondo played his best basketball of the season against the Magic on Sunday, posting 19 points and 10 assists over just 26 minutes. He was also incredibly efficient from the field, hitting nine of 11 field-goal attempts, including several perimeter jumpers.
The production from the rest of the big men in the Celtics starting lineup also improved drastically with Rondo back in his groove. Sullinger (10-of-15, 21 points) and Brandon Bass (9-of-15, 19 points) had their most efficient performances in weeks. Rondo’s influence wasn’t lost on both players.
“I just thought we played together. We didn’t really worry about shots. We created for one another, moved the ball really quickly. Rondo played a lot like himself and we had that to cue on so we just played our game,” Sullinger said.
“Rondo is a coach on the floor and he’s leading us. It felt great,” Bass said.
The quality of shots Rondo was able to set up for both players was a key factor in their improved play, as each took nine of their shots around the basket, rather than relying heavily on the mid-range or outside jumper. Stevens knows Rondo’s continued resurgence moving forward will be a critical factor if Boston hopes to improve their shooting woes.
“I think what you have to do is analyze the kind of shots you are getting, and can you get better shots? I think we’ve gotten better shots over the last few games. The other day, the way Orlando was playing us, we had to make the shots Orlando was giving us, and we made them,” Stevens said.
Rondo, meanwhile, knows he’s just doing what he does best: setting up his teammates.
“I like to make guys’ jobs easier. I think I’ve done that in the past couple years, get guys wide-open looks, high percentage shots close to the basket. They are rhythm shots. Avery [Bradley], I know where he likes to catch the ball and shoot the ball compared to Jeff [Green], and so on,” Rondo explained.
With a set roster for the moment, Stevens knows there should be some progress, but he realizes the team has a long way to go.
“I do think it boils down to hopefully putting people in the position to have the best chance at success,” Stevens said yesterday at practice. “I think we are getting a bit more streamlined and better at that with this new group, but it’s still new enough where it’s not polished by any means.”
With Rondo rounding back into form now, it will be up to him to see if he can turn Boston’s offense around and push the Celtics back into the playoff picture
“The East schedule isn’t that crazy, so a couple of games where you string a couple wins together, you never know,” Rondo said.
With the NBA trade deadline looming and Danny Ainge in position to make several major moves involving the team’s future, the next few weeks will be pivotal to see what Rondo can do offensively for a capable group of veterans around him.