Will The Celtics Turn Over Their Chance To Win The Finals?

Throughout these NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors offense has been fairly consistent. The Dubs have scored between 100 and 108 points in all five games, and their offensive rating has held steady between 108.1 and 115 in each contest. By contrast, the Boston Celtics have fluctuated wildly between blistering efficiency and devastating ineptitude. Boston has recorded an offensive rating as high as 125.4 (Game 3) and as low as 89.7 (Game 2).

The bellwether for the Celtics, as Robert O’Connell noted on Wednesday, has been turnovers. The Celtics are 13-2 this postseason and 2-0 during the Finals in games where they’ve coughed the ball up fewer than 15 times, while they are just 1-7 overall and 0-3 against Golden State when they’ve given the ball away 15 times or more.

Not all turnovers are created equally, though. Throwing the ball out of bounds, setting an illegal screen or committing a charge is not as damaging as throwing it to the other team, fumbling a pass or getting stripped on the drive; At least in the former examples, you can set your defense before the inbound and before the opposing offense begins its attack. Unfortunately for the Celtics, the majority of their blunders during this series have been of the live-ball variety.

Of Boston’s 78 turnovers during this series, 49 have been live-ball, according to PBP Stats. That’s a 62.8 percent live-ball turnover ratewhich not only far exceeds the team’s average during either the regular season or the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffsbut would have ranked dead last in the NBA this year. (Only 43.9 percent of Golden State’s Finals turnovers have been of the live-ball variety.)

The biggest culprit has been Jayson Tatum, with 13 of his 18 turns resulting in chances for the Warriors going the other way. But Jaylen Brown (10 of 15) and Marcus Smart (9 of 16) are not far behind, and every regular in Boston’s rotation has committed at least one live-ball turnover.

Worse than the sheer volume of live-ball giveaways, though, is that the Warriors have capitalized on those opportunities at an absurd clip. Golden State has turned Boston’s 49 live-ball giveaways into 19 baskets and 13 fouls. The Warriors’ average of 1.467 points per possession coming off of these live-ball turnovers would have ranked second in the NBA during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum. Considering that the Celtics allowed only 1.251 points per possession after live-ball turnovers during the regular season (the league’s fourth-lowest average), that’s quite an impressive feat.

The Celtics are being done in by live-ball turnovers in the Finals

Turnovers committed by the Boston Celtics, including a breakdown of live-ball turnovers, during segments of the 2021-22 NBA season

Time frame Total turns Number Rate Pts/Poss
Finals 78 49 62.8% 1.467
East. Conf. playoffs 265 142 53.6 1.405
Regular season 1,118 618 55.3 1.251

Sources: PBP Stats, Second Spectrum

Unfortunately, neither the league nor the player-tracking services keep track of “turnovers forced.” It’d be a lot cooler if they did, but we can attempt to reasonably approximate something like that statistic by taking a look at the half-court matchup data to see who was guarding the player who turned the ball over on the possession when they did so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Andrew Wiggins has been more involved than any other Warriors defender on these plays, as he was defending the man who coughed up the ball on 12 of Boston’s 57 half-court turnovers. Gary Payton II has been heavily involved as well, defending the culprit on nine such possessions despite not playing in the first game of the series.

While he hasn’t necessarily been the one to actually force them every time, nobody has seen turnovers end up in his hands more often than Stephen Curry, who has a team-high 10 steals through five games of these Finals. The chaos that can ensue after giveaways such as these has benefited Curry as well, as he’s made seven baskets and drawn two fouls on the ensuing possessions.

Of course, not all turnovers are actually forced by the opposing team. And a great deal of Boston’s turnovers are directly attributable to what can best be described as “Celtic Bullshit.”

You know, plays when a Celtic drives into traffic for no reason and loses his dribble on a spin move; tries to thread a needle between three defenders to a teammate who is not open; lobs a pass over the top for a teammate who is not open; smacks his defender in the face while trying to establish a position that he already has; jumps into the air and throws the ball over his head to nobody in particular; jumps into the air and throws the ball across the court directly to a defender; drives into his defender’s body even though there is nowhere to go and elbows him in the jaw; ignores a wide-open teammate in the corner in an effort to make a wraparound pass to the top of the key; or tries to throw the ball into the lane and between four defenders to a cutting teammate who is not open.

Basically, if you are watching one of Smart’s many turnovers, it is very likely that you are watching some Celtic Bullshit.

The reasoning all of these matters is that despite the game-to-game consistency of Golden State’s overall offense, just about the only way the Warriors have been able to get points is by getting out on the break.

Through five games, Boston has held the Dubs to just 93.9 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass. Basically, when they can set defense, the Celtics are able to turn the Warriors’ offense into the equivalent of the Sacramento Kings’ 21st-ranked half-court attack.

But when the Celtics are scrambled, they’re much more vulnerable, and they have allowed the Warriors to get out in transition at what would have been a top-three rate during the regular season. The Celtics, like every NBA team, are also considerably more vulnerable off steals than off missed shots. Golden State is at 125.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time transition plays overall during this series, according to Cleaning the Glass; but that number is just 108.8 off live rebounds, and it’s 146.9 off steals.

What’s particularly interesting about Boston’s seeming inability to stop giving the ball away is that the Celtics weren’t a particularly high-turnover team during the regular season. Their 13.9 turnover rate ranked 13th-lowest in the league this year, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Their overall figure has spiked to 14.6 percent during the Eastern Conference playoffsand it’s 16.3 percent in the Finals. The Warriors were seventh in the NBA in opponent’s turnover rate during the regular season but actually forced giveaways at a slightly lower rate during their run through the Western Conference.

Boston’s carelessness has sent that number shooting back up, and it’s the biggest reason the Warriors have been able to retake the series lead. If Tatum, Brown and Smart want to extend this series to a Game 7, their best bet is to limit the Celtic Bullshit and take care of the basketball.

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