The Boston Celtics, winless in three preseason tries, encountered some familiar offensive turbulence on Friday night and endured an unsightly 97-85 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on the campus of the University of Delaware.
Some will lament Jeff Green's exhibition struggles -- he misfired on nine of the 11 shots he took while scoring just four points over 20 minutes and was a team-worst minus-16 in plus/minus -- or Boston's inconsistent 3-point shooting -- the team shot 23.8 percent beyond the arc on Friday -- but the bottom line is nothing is coming easy for the Celtics, particularly in the half-court offense.
Entering Friday's game, early exhibition data showed Boston was among the league's most successful teams in transition. Boston had generated 41 points on 29 transition possessions for a robust 1.414 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data.
The problem: That sample size was tiny -- so small that Celtics first-year coach Brad Stevens had devoted a large chunk of Thursday's practice to going over transition reads in hopes his team would 1) Run more often and 2) Make better decisions when attacking in transition.
"I don’t think we’re [running] enough," Stevens said on Thursday. "I don’t think we’re getting out enough. I think we’re mixing and matching and that may just be early season, and that may be us not used to playing this style, [but] whatever the case may be, we’ll keep emphasizing it. We tried to shore some of that up [Thursday] to be honest. So hopefully we can keep emphasizing it while keeping the ball. If we can do both well, that’s better than playing against set defenses."
Well, the Celtics heeded Stevens' advice to run more, but their decision-making and ball security were atrocious on Friday.
Boston generated 24 transition possessions on Friday night against Philadelphia, but scored a mere 17 points off of them (0.708 ppp). The Celtics' offense in transition Friday was hindered by turnovers (4) and ill-advised 3-pointers (2-for-9 shooting in transition).
After Boston lost Rajon Rondo in January, Doc Rivers spent the final four months of the 2012-13 campaign imploring his team to crank the tempo knowing that the Celtics simply were not good enough without their All-Star point guard to consistently beat opponents in a half-court game.
Even with a new-look roster, Stevens grabbed that tempo baton when he took over this summer. He had to like what he saw early in the preseason and the Celtics seemed to thrive whenever the first person to touch the ball started the break the other way. Teams with elite point guards (even injured ones like Rondo) have a propensity to want to get the ball to the primary ball-handler after a defensive stop. But nearly all of Boston's transition points Wednesday night against the Knicks came when the rebounder pushed the ball up the floor (even when that was a big man).
After Friday's loss to Philadelphia, Boston was averaging a meager 0.82 points per possession in the half-court offense, according to Synergy data. Even after Friday's struggles, that number jumped to 1.094 in transition.
You don't need advanced stats to understand that Boston needs to crank the tempo this season. As Green sees more double-teams this preseason and struggles to attack the basket, it's clear Boston's roster is devoid of players that can dominate the game in the half-court set while Rondo rehabs. But with a bunch of young, athletic and versatile players on the roster, the Celtics are capable of generating easier buckets by attacking teams before they can get set.
On Friday, Boston watched a spunky Philadelphia bunch give it a taste of the medicine that the Celtics should be pouring for opponents. The 76ers attacked in transition and, despite their own propensity to turn the ball over, found a way to consistently get to the rim while blowing past Boston defenders before they were set.
What happens when Rondo returns? Stevens acknowledged a desire to put the ball in Rondo's hands, but still wants to capitalize on opportunities to run.
"That’s one of the small tweaks that we’re going to have to make when the time comes that Rajon is back, because we want him to have the ball," said Stevens. "Now, I also think, and he would agree with this, those guys running the wings, if he can kick it ahead, or if those guys get it and he can space away, then we can get ball-reversal to him and get into a pick-and-roll, and that’s really hard to guard. Those will all be emphasized now and we’ll continue when he gets back."