The First Quarter Matters
Posted by Zach Lowe on Jun 10, 2010
Just for kicks, here are the Celtics’ quarter-by-quarter scoring margins over their last three series (Cleveland, Orlando, LA). The stats encompass 15 games—six each against the Cavs and Magic, and three against LA.
In 9 Wins In 6 Losses Overall
1st Q +48 -36 +12
2nd Q +15 -8 +7
3rd Q +56 -17 +39
4th Q -4 -17 -21
Is any of this relevant?
A couple of caveats:
• Quarter-by-quarter analysis can be overdone sometimes, particularly when you look at small sample sizes. If your team gets trounced in the 2nd quarter over a full season, it probably says something about your bench. But in the playoffs, the rotations are shorter, starters play more and the game sample size is small. So be careful reading too much into this stuff.
Likewise: You might notice the C’s had positive aggregate margins in wins and negative margins in losses. Duh.
• Another reason to be skeptical: those 4th quarter numbers. They look awful. They’re really not. The Celtics were + 8 in the 4th against the Cavs and are +15 so far against Los Angeles. The C’s lost the 4th quarter in all six games against Orlando, but much of the 4th quarter was really garbage time in Game 3 (a blowout win in Boston), Game 5 (bad loss in Orlando) and Game 6 (Boston up 21 going into the 4th). Take those games out, and we’re really just talking about three games, and the 4th quarter margin was just -1 in one of those three games.
All of this said, the 1st quarter numbers are interesting, aren’t they? The Celtics have killed it in the 1st quarter in wins and played worse in the 1st than in any other quarter during their six losses. Overall, Boston is 7-1 over this span when they win the 1st quarter and 2-5 when they lose it.
I’d hesitate to read too much into this, but we all know Boston’s starting line-up is, by any measure, one of the most effective in the league; of all five-man groups that played at least 220 minutes together in the regular season, only four had a better plus/minus (unadjusted) than Boston’s starting five, according to Basketball Value.
We also know that Boston’s bench, like most benches, is inconsistent. Check out Boston’s line-up data for the post-season (again via Basketball Value). Of Boston’s 20 most often-used line-ups in the playoffs, 11 have positive plus/minus numbers and 9 have negative plus/minus numbers. (And, yes, the sample sizes are ridiculously small. I know).
Of those nine negative line-ups, seven contain two or more more bench players. Six contain the front-court combination of Big Baby and Sheed. Two of the five most frequently-used of these nine negative units contain the Rondo/Tony Allen back court, and individual numbers show the team’s offense has scored about 7 fewer points per 100 possessions with TA on the court (about 101.4 points per 100 possessions) versus with him on the bench (about 108.5 points per 100 possessions, a tick above Boston’s season average). In TA’s defense, Boston is giving up about 5.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor versus with him on the bench.
Sheed has the worst plus/minus (adjusted or unadjusted) of all Boston’s regulars, excluding Nate Robinson, who is only sort of a regular.
Again, the sample sizes are small. But I think we can agree on this: The starters are consistent; the bench is not. And if we can take and hold anything from this quarter-by-quarter data, it might be that Boston needs its starters to put the team in the lead—that perhaps Boston is uniquely effective when playing from ahead. (And the 3rd quarter numbers show the team can just as well take the lead then, too).
That notion makes intuitive sense. Boston is an older team with an inconsistent bench, a top-flight defense and an offense more prone to droughts than those of most elite clubs. (Remember, Boston ranked just 15th in offensive efficiency this season). Yes, Boston blew a bunch of double-digit leads in the regular season (only Memphis blew more), but I think we can all agree at this point that regular-season stats haven’t turned out to be meaningful for this particular Boston team. When their offense has suffered in the 4th quarter during the playoffs, Boston has still managed to pull out a few wins, in part because they were able to build leads early and use their defense to hold on late. (See the first two games at Orlando, for instance).
Again: You can’t make the simplistic argument that Boston “must” win the 1st quarter or “can’t” complete late rallies. Those generalizations obviously aren’t true.
But this team is a beast when it gets an early lead and sustains it. Let’s hope the first quarter goes well tonight.