It is time to recognize something: Forcing turnovers is a skill, and it’s a skill that has helped the Boston Celtics start the playoffs 10-3. The Celtics forced 18 Orlando turnovers on Sunday and 14 more in Game 2, and for the full playoffs, they have forced turnovers on 16.2 percent of opponent possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.
That leads all playoff teams by a wide margin, and it’s a huge number historically. Since the NBA finally banned hand-checking for real, guess how many playoff teams that advanced past the first round have managed to put up a defensive turnover higher than 16 percent?
The answer: One. It was the 2007 Golden State Warriors, that weird Nellie Frankenstein that upset the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round. The ’07 Dubs forced turnovers on 16.9 percent of opponent possessions, according to B-R. Since 1990, only eight other teams that advanced past the first round have topped the 16 percent mark in the post-season, and all eight played between 1990 and 1997:
’97 Bulls (16.3 percent)
’96 Bulls (18.1 percent, the highest post-season rate any team has recorded since 1990)
’96 Jazz (16.9 percent)
’95 Knicks (16.8 percent)
’94 Pacers (16.8 percent)
’94 Knicks (16.4 percent)
’94 Hawks (16.2 percent)
’90 Bulls (16.1 percent)
So, basically, we’re talking about the ’07 Warriors and the best defensive teams from the glory years of the hand-check, when games were so ugly David Stern had to change the rules to pretty them up again. Side note: Not enough people remember how devastatingly awesome the Jordan-era Bulls were defensively. They forced piles of turnovers and protected the defensive glass like madmen.
And yet I got into such a heated argument with college friends about whether Scottie Pippen is overrated that it became uncomfortable and all of us agreed to never mention Pippen again.
In any case, the Celtics and the Magic represent two elite defensive teams who get results in very different ways. The C’s were 2nd in the NBA during the regular season in forcing turnovers, 9th in opponent shooting percentage and 12th in defensive rebounding percentage. The Magic were at or near the top of the league in opponent shooting percentage and defensive rebounding but near the bottom in forcing turnovers.
This is because Stan Van Gundy has embraced the Gregg Popovich philosophy of discouraging gambles in favor of staying in front of guys, contesting shots and being in good position to grab rebounds. The Cavaliers and Spurs stress the same concepts, and as a result usually rank near the bottom of the league in forcing turnovers and at the top in defensive rebounding.
It’s a tribute to how well the C’s are playing defensively that they have been able to force so many turnovers without compromising other parts of their defense. They are forcing more turnovers than they did in the regular season while holding opponents to a lower shooting percentage, especially from three, and grabbing a much higher percentage of defensive boards. Basically, the Celtics are playing defense about as well as it can be played. They’re having their cake (the turnovers) and eating it, too.
Can they continue to force turnovers at such a high rate? And if they can’t, can they continue to limit shooting percentages and clean the defensive glass?
By the way, just for fun: Over the last 20 seasons, 31 teams have recorded a defensive turnover rate of at least 16 percent in the regular season, according to Basketball-Reference. Only three teams have pulled it off since the league phased out hand-checking completely after 2003—the ’07 Warriors and Bulls and the ’06 Bobcats.
Of those 31 teams, 20 played between 1994 and 1999. Some trivia:
• The Gary Payton Sonics make the 16 percent club every season from ’93 through ’97 and in ’91. That team was ridiculous.
• The Cavs made it three straight years from ’96-98. Those were the borderline unwatchable Fratello teams that never got out of the first round.
• The Bulls made in ’95 and ’96 and were close in other seasons. A defensive juggernaut.
• The Blaylock-Augmon Hawks hit the 16 percent mark in ’94 and ’96. God, the Eastern Conference was a weird combination of awesome and horrible in the mid/late 1990s.
• Finally, the team that recorded the highest defensive turnover rate of the post-1990 era? The juggernaut that made opponents cough up the ball more often than any other team in recent league history?
That would be…
Your 1998 Boston Celtics, a Pitino-led squad that forced turnovers on 19 percent of opponent possessions. No one even comes close to that mark.
And boy did they pay the price for it. They fouled at such an astronomically high rate that they basically spotted opponents a 10-point lead every game. They somehow allowed the highest opponent field-goal percentage in the league even as they held opponents to just 31.8 percent from deep—the third-lowest mark in the league. So, basically, the Celtics were giving up a ton of lay-ups and easy two-point buckets. They also ranked near the bottom of the league in defensive rebounding.
I’m telling you, the ’98 Celtics were among the strangest teams in NBA history. Paul Pierce arrived the next season, and it’s a miracle playing on those Pitino teams didn’t just ruin him forever.