- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- The magic number appears to be 14. If the Boston Celtics commit anything north of that number in turnovers, go ahead and put a tick in the loss column.
Nine times this season the Celtics have committed 15 turnovers or more, and nine times this season the Celtics have lost. In fact, the only time Boston has lost when dipping below that number is in Houston, where Boston turned the ball over five times in the opening quarter while the Rockets built a 22-point cushion. No amount of ball security was going to bring the Celtics back in that one.
After being plagued by ball security issues early in the season, Boston appeared to have halted the turnover locomotive by inserting Jordan Crawford at starting point guard with the goal of easing the ballhandling duties on Avery Bradley. Sure enough, Boston's team turnover percentage dipped from a league-worst 22.4 percent over its first four games to a mere 13.9 percent (fifth-best in that span) during a four-game winning streak.
Now Boston has dropped six games in a row and that turnover percentage has spiked back to 17.8 percent (fifth-worst in the league in that span). Boston is giving the ball away 16.8 times per game during the losing streak.
Maybe it should come as no surprise, but during this six-game losing streak, Boston owns the worst offensive rating in the NBA (90 points per 100 possessions). A group that already struggles to put points on the board is further shooting itself in the foot by regularly giving away the ball.
It really boils down to a very simple truth: The Celtics have a minimal margin for error and cannot afford careless turnovers if they want to be competitive.
Even rookie Kelly Olynyk admits it's pretty elementary.
"If you limit your turnovers, you're going to have a great chance to win the game," he said. "The more shots you're getting up, the more chances you have to make it, the more points you're going to put on the board."
And putting points on the board has been no easy task for these Celtics. When the team has struggled to generate offense, their frustration tends to seep into the defensive end, where they lose focus -- even if for brief spells -- and opponents go on runs that Boston simply is not able to overcome.
Indiana is the best defensive team in the league and did its part in harassing Boston into 16 second-half turnover that led to 23 points. The Pacers outscored Boston 55-32 during those two quarters, overcoming an eight-point halftime deficit and cruising to the finish line in a game they led by as many as 20 in the fourth quarter.
What has to be frustrating to Celtics coach Brad Stevens is if they take away those turnovers, Boston gives itself an honest-to-goodness chance to hang with an Eastern Conference juggernaut.
The Celtics shot 50.7 percent from the field and 45.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc -- staggering numbers against a team that entered with the best opponent field goal defense in the league. But Indiana generated 12 more shots than Boston on the night (and shot twice as many free throws), which helped it pull away in the second half.
"If you would have told me that we were going to shoot 51 percent against the Pacers tonight, I would've said, 'We've got a chance to win,'" Stevens said. "And we do if we don't throw them the ball."
It wasn't just the number of turnovers, it was the type of giveaways. The Celtics had too many lazy passes, too many home-run attempts, too many head-slapping moments that left them stumbling around in an 11-turnover third quarter, and the Pacers pounced.
Crawford, who was a perfect 8-for-8 from the field in the first half and led the team with 24 points, turned the ball over a team-high six times to diminish his effectiveness. Avery Bradley and Jeff Green gave it away three times apiece.
And then there was Gerald Wallace, who had five turnovers in 22 minutes. It was about as atrocious as he's played this season.
"I've just got to play," said Wallace. "I'm thinking. I'm trying to do whatever I do. I've just got to go out and play and be myself and let the game come to me and play the way I've been playing. I've been trying to adjust and play. I've been trying to distribute more and get guys more involved. I think my turnovers are like eight per game or something. I've just got to go out and play my own game. I know how to play."
Inside the locker room, Jared Sullinger heard the turnover stats and said, "We gotta value the ball like gold." Otherwise, whatever offense this team generates outside of the turnovers is simply fool's gold.
The Celtics, of course, have an easy solution for their turnover woes. Rajon Rondo is navigating the final stages of rehab from ACL surgery in February and will provided a steadying presence at point guard upon his return. But the Celtics can't wait around for Rondo to improve their ball security.
They have to value every single possession, give themselves a chance to score points every trip down. Their magic number of 14 turnovers isn't a lot, and it only hammers home how that the margin for error with this team is incredibly thin.
Too many turnovers are dooming the C's, who can ill afford any mistakes.