The Celtics’ Struggles: Inside the Numbers

The Big Three might be old, but a lackadaisical attitude may be more to blame for their struggles on second nights of back-to-backs. (www.bostonsportspulse.com)

The Celtics lost yesterday to the New Jersey Nets. It was their fifth straight loss of the second game of a back-to-back for Boston, and the eighth time this season. It was suggested yesterday that age was the likely cause. But is it? Were we to compare the Celtics’ performance on back-to-backs this year versus previous years (starting with the 2007-08 season, when the “Big Three” debuted), would we conclude that age was in fact the issue? Why doesn’t someone go figure that out?

Luckily, all you readers have such an analyst at your beck and call, one who’s happy to answer these very questions. It might take weeks. It might take days. It might a couple of hours when I have nothing else to do because I’m on Spring Break. But you all want, nay, demand, to know why the Celtics have struggled. And, to quote Starscream from Transformers, I live to serve you.

To see the raw data I used to figure all of this out, go here. I focused on the two factors most determinant of a game’s outcome: opponent record at the time (a signifier of physical skill), and home-court advantage (a suggester of opponent’s mental approach).

Now then, let’s make like George Dantzig (no, not the guy who wrote “Mother“) and analyze!

The Problems with the Age Argument

If we look only at wins and losses, the argument that age is the root cause becomes attractively simple. Every subsequent season since 2007, the Celtics have been a worse team on the second night of a back-to-back. In 2007, they won 84.2 percent of their second games (16-3). In 2008 that percentage dropped to 82.4 percent (14-3). Last season it fell to 76.5 percent (11-7). This season, it sits at a paltry 42.9 percent (6-8).

Such a natural decline prompts us to see a cause-and-effect relationship with similar naturally progressing factors, such as age. With age should come a loss of physical ability. This not only means players don’t play as well in any given game, but it also means they take longer to recover for the next game. When you get less than 24 hours between the games, and much of that is spent traveling (since 2007, the Celtics have never lost the second game of a back-to-back when both are home games), it’s even tougher to play well.

But if we focus on the “Big Three,” the three players who generate most of the scoring for the Celtics (defensively, the 2010-11 Celtics play fine on the second night of back-to-backs : opponents have only scored 100+ points against them twice so far, the fewest occurrences in four seasons), it becomes far harder to blame age alone as the cause of the Celtics’ struggles. Kevin Garnett is definitely getting old, with his shooting percentage dropping each year since 2007 (causing a decrease in points per game) and his offensive rebounding (1.3 per game) at its second-lowest ever. But Paul Pierce is shooting .499 and converting 85.5 percent of his free-throw attempts, both career highs. His point totals are down, but that’s because he’s taking fewer shots (12.8 per game, second only to last season for fewest) and is struggling from three-point range (.375, lowest since the ’05-06 season). And Ray Allen is playing better than ever, shooting .502 and .466 from three-point range, both career bests. Allen never seems to tire on the court. He isn’t fast so much as wily, constantly maneuvering around the court when he doesn’t have the ball, biding his time until he can get open for the trey or penetrate for the jumper.

The Celtics’ problems aren’t physical; they’re mental.

The Focus Argument

Every year since 2007, the Celtics have performed worse on the road against sub-.500 teams on the second night of a back-to-back. In 2007, they never lost to sub-.500 teams on either night (10-0 on the first night, 11-0 on the second). In 2008, they wen 6-2 against sub-.500 teams on the road on the second night. In 2009, they went 4-2. This season, they’re 1-5.

In theory, sub-.500 teams are physically easier to beat than plus-.500 teams. But this very notion may make them harder to beat mentally. When a winning team (and the Celtics have not had a losing record at any point during the last four seasons) comes to town against a losing team, the home crowd tends to be bigger. More stars draw more fans. This is even more the case with the Celtics. a pre-eminent NBA franchises, who seem to have unusually large fanbases in other cities. But no matter whom the fans come to see, more fans and a louder atmosphere tends to inspire the home team, who suddenly want to put on a show. Hence, the losing home team tends to play even tougher. The stronger, visiting team, meanwhile, knows it doesn’t have to play at maximum to win the game, so they tend to under-compensate and play worse. Thus the home team has a double advantage: an intensity-inspiring crowd and a mentally inattentive opponent.

Is this a good strategy? Of course not. But it makes sense, especially when your players are already physically tired from the night before. And as each subsequent year makes it harder on the aging “Big Three” (a combined 102 years old) to recover after a game, it becomes psychologically appealing to “check out” of an apparently easier game beforehand.

The Celtics’ home performance against sub-.500 teams on back-to-back second nights has not declined (3-1; best ever was 3-0 in 2007), which is further evidence that the team may be continually overlooking weak teams in hostile arenas. That the Celtics maintain a .500 record (1-0 at home, 1-2 on the road) against plus-.500 teams also suggests that mental preparation and focus may be a factor. They have no problem gearing up for tough opponents; it’s the easy ones that always bite them.

The Overuse Argument

We can’t discuss the second game of back-to-backs without looking at the first game as well. Players will change how they play knowing they have to play again less than 24 hours later.

The Celtics won over 70 percent of their first-games three out of four seasons. Their 8-10 2009 record is strange, but might be explained by the 11 plus-.500 teams on first nights (most since 2007) and four home games (fewest).

But if we compare Boston’s first- and second-night records, a telling disparity emerges. In 2007, the Celtics went 16-3 on both nights. In 2008, they went 12-5 on first nights and 14-3 on second nights (two-win difference). In 2009, they went 8-10 and 11-7 (three-win difference). This season, they’re 13-1 on first nights and 6-8 on second nights. That’s a seven-win difference. The Celtics had been continuously shifting their focus towards the second game from 2008-2009, then shifted dramatically in the opposite direction in 2010. It seems they’ve forgotten how to pace themselves through two games.

It’s possible that the Celtics, knowledgeable veterans that they are, know the second game is going to be a struggle before the first one starts. They then over-play the first one to make sure they go at least 1-1 for the back-to-back. Unfortunately, the talent-level of their opponents for first games doesn’t actually require that mental approach. So far,  the Celtics have only played six plus-.500 teams on first nights this season, the fewest since 2007.

Wrap-Up: Does Distance Matter?

The Celtics’ problems seem to be more mental than physical. The team plays too hard on the first night, then has nothing left to compete with on the second night. When the second night comes, the Celtics tend to look past the weak teams, especially on the road, in favor of harder opponents later in the season.

Of course, playing too hard is also affected by playing minutes, a coaching decision. Doc Rivers may be overusing his starters on first-games. Then again, Rivers might use the same rationale the players do: the team will struggle on the second night no matter what, so I may as well play them hard enough to at least win the first game.

The last issue to discuss is distance. Are back-to-backs harder when they require long travel-times? Results are inconclusive. The only team that has beaten the Celtics four times (with the Celtics on the road) since 2007 in either game of a back-to-back are the Denver Nuggets, who have won all four times on the first night. A normally strong Western Conference team, the Celtics’ struggles against Denver might be more physical than mental, but distance and altitude might matter.

One team that has had success against the Celtics on second nights are the Golden State Warriors. These losses are likely due to a lack of focus: two Celtics losses came during Warriors seasons in which Golden State did not win 30 games. Two of the losses also came the night after playing a Los Angeles-based team, so distance would not be a factor. The other home team to beat the Celtics three times on second nights, the Washington Wizards, is also a normally bad team. This helps the focus argument, but says little about the distance factor.

The other two teams to beat the Celtics three times on either night of a back-to-back are the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls. Neither team requires a long flight from Logan International. Both teams have had strong and weak seasons since 2007 (the Cavaliers from the 2007-2009, the Bulls this season).

Does distance matters? Who knows. But it can’t be controlled. Mental approach, focus, attitude, pacing, these factors can be controlled. And if the Celtics want to salvage any of the five remaining back-to-back series left this season, they need to get these factors under control. Soon.

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