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Building a Defense for 2010’s NBA

Picture 3The Celtics are currently allowing opponents to score 99.3 points per 100 possessions, basically on par with the C’s 2008 defense (98.9 points allowed per 100 possessions), a unit that should be included in any conversation about the greatest defensive teams of the post-hand check era. 

A lot of different things go into making a great defense, but none are more important for the 2009-10 C’s than this: No team allows a lower field-goal percentage on shots near the rim. So far this season, opponents are hitting just 55.3 percent of shots in the immediate rim area; the league average is 60.5 percent, and the 2nd-best team by this measure (the Cavs) check in at 56.1 percent, according to the indispensable Hoopdata.com.

That 55.3 percent mark would be the second-lowest percentage any team has allowed on shots at the rim since the start of the 2007 season, which is as far back as Hoopdata’s public database goes. (The 2008 Rockets allowed opponents to hit just 54.6 percent at the rim). 

The Celtics don’t accomplish this by blocking a ton of shots; they rank 13th in total shot blocks this season, right around league average, according to Basketball Reference

And yet this isn’t surprising at all. The Celtics have two excellent interior defenders (pick two from Perk, KG and Sheed) on the court almost all the time, and all of them are long-limbed and smart about challenging shots. The foundation of any defense is stopping the screen/roll, and the C’s bigs are as good as any at switching onto a ball-handler who turns the corner on a screen/roll and sticking on that guy’s hip as he gets into the paint. 

Meanwhile, the other big on the court has rotated down to help cover the screener if that guy has rolled to the hoop.

Basically: Lay-ups are treacherous against Boston. 

But so are three-pointers.


The C’s are holding opponents to 31 percent from three, the 2nd-best mark in the league, behind only the Lakers (30.1 percent). 

So: The C’s have the longest and shortest shots covered. What about the mid-range game?

You know what’s funny? The Celtics are awful at defending shots from the rim area out to 10 feet away from the hoop (i.e. shorter mid-range attempts). Teams are hitting 51 percent of those shots against Boston, the 4th-highest mark in the league. (Only the Hornets, Grizz and T’Wolves are worse. Not exactly a defensive murderers row). Even “worse”: The C’s allow a ton of shots from this slice of the court—10.2 attempts per game, the 6th-most in the league. 

The C’s are much better defending long mid-range shots (from 10-15 feet out), but they allow an above average number of attempts from there, too. 

Again, this isn’t surprising if you watch the C’s play. If you’re a good shooter about to catch a pass behind the three-point line, there will probably be a Celtics defender running at you like a crazy person. If you’re Ryan Anderson or J.J. Redick or Mo Williams, the Celtics want you to pump fake and drive past the defender closing out on you. They invite you to take that 12-floater off the dribble. It’s not that the C’s will give you a clean look. They won’t. But it’s the kind of look the team is less concerned about than shots around the rim or threes.

And with good reason. Teams essentially make the same percentage of shots from 10-15 feet out as they do from 16-23 feet, according to Hoopdata. Mid-range shots are tough shots, usually taken spontaneously and on the move. 

When I was younger, I was one of those fans who used to parrot Jerry Sloan and mourn the demise of the mid-range game. No shot pleased me more than a 14-foot tear drop. Those are gorgeous shots, and they are important ones, too, especially for elite point guards who struggle with jump shots and force opponents to focus on protecting the rim. 

But the more I learn about the league, the more I’m convinced that the demise of the mid-range game is as much a product of smart coaching (and playing) as it is of those youth leagues everyone likes to rail against for coaching the “fundamentals” poorly.

Again, this isn’t anything new. To varying degrees, Orlando and San Antonio have designed their defenses in recent years to protect the rim, defend the three and do the best they can when teams take mid-range shots. 

Which begs the question: Is it possible to be good at everything on defense? Can a super team take away every kind of shot a team could get on the court?

The team that comes the closest in 2009-10 (so far) is the Lakers, who rank in the top five in field-goal percentage against from four of the five ranges into which Hoopdata divides the court. (Scary: The Lakers rank #1 in three of those sectors). 

But they’re one of the worst teams at defending shots from between 10 and 15 feet. Is that by design?

What about the 2008 C’s? 

They’re actually an interesting case. No team defended long shots better; the C’s ranked 1st in opponent percentage on both 16-23-footers (i.e. long twos) and three-point shots. The C’s were about average on mid-range shots and attempts at the rim, something that would seem to indicate some interior weakness, right?

Not really. C’s opponents that year hit 60.1 percent of shots at the rim (about average), but the C’s defense appears to have discouraged teams from even taking such shots. The 2008 C’s yielded just 20.6 attempts at the rim per game, the lowest mark in the league and the 2nd-lowest of any team since the start of the ’07 season. 

Again: Win the paint and the three-point line, and you’re going to win a lot of games in the NBA.

  • Rocci

    Great stuff here. It’s amazing that so much of this stuff, to my untrained eye at least, can’t actually be seen while watching the games, but show up in the efficiency stats later on.

    Over the next couple of games, I’m definitely going to be looking out for the defense forcing our opponents to be taking those long mid-range shots.

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  • Jason

    The Celtics didn’t pioneer this approach to D (check the rim, check the 3pt line). The Pistons and the Spurs have been doing it this way for a long time. Every good defensive team has focused on discouraging shots at the rim (btw you should show number of shots for 2009 as well instead of only 2008). In the current era, the importance of the 3 point shot makes it imperative to have a defense that can chase people off that line or shoot contested 3’s. You can go even more detailed and make sure you always cover the corner 3, which is the easiest of the 3 point shots to make.

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