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Celtics’ Defense Still Getting the Job Done

The Celtics’ defense is in a state of transition.

The ever-useful Defensive Efficiency ranking places the Celtics at 6th in the NBA at 99.1 points allowed / opponents’ 100 possessions (HoopData.com). That seems about right. No, it’s not the dominant defense that the Celtics had a few years ago. But it’s still a group of smart, veteran players who understand where games are truly won and lost.

When the Big Three first arrived, the Celtics built their reputation on opponent’s field goal percentage. Teams going up against the C’s simply knew they would not be getting many clean looks throughout the course of the night. Not with Kevin Garnett shouting orders at people and every single player on that team making defense his first priority.

This year’s team is a little different. Yes, they are still extremely organized and generally do not make many mental mistakes. But the Celtics have just been mediocre when it comes to opponent’s field goal percentage this year. Since 2007-2008, when the C’s led the league in OppFG%, they have steadily declined in that category over the next two seasons, and that trend has continued through the first 10 games of this season:

2007-2008: 41.9% (1st in NBA)
2008-2009: 43.1% (1st)
2009-2010: 45.1% (8th)
2010-2011: 45.6% (15th)

Why? It’s almost impossible to ignore the age factor here. Let’s be honest, with each successive year, the legs get more and more tired and it becomes difficult to close down on defenders. Paul Pierce can talk all he wants about how great it is to be completely healthy. But realistically, going up against someone like LeBron, Durant or Rudy Gay every other night is going to take its toll on him. Not to mention, I don’t necessarily want this team expending every ounce of energy it has into playing super-intense defense for 82 games. So the other teams make a few more shots during the regular season. So what?

So despite this trend, and the fact that Kendrick Perkins is still out, how are the Celtics continuing to still achieve a decent amount of success on the defensive end?

Here are some possible reasons:

  • You can start with KG. And I’m not merely talking about the intangibles here. Garnett has been an absolute monster on the defensive glass. He is 3rd in the league (just ahead of Dwight Howard) in Defensive Rebound Rate, pulling down 32.8% of defensive rebounds while he’s on the court. When he won Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, that number was only 25.1%. The reenergized version of Garnett has been a treat to watch this year, and the way he’s been pouncing on rebounds all season makes you feel good that he finally is completely healthy.
  • Led by KG, the Celtics as a team do not allow many offensive boards, either. They also rank 3rd in the NBA at Defensive Rebound Rate at 77%. And with the way their bigs are dropping like flies these days, minimizing easy put backs is a huge factor to their success.
  • Rajon Rondo.
  • Then of course, there’s Big Baby. I don’t know if anyone in the local sports media has mentioned this, but I heard he has taken 16 charges in 10 games. But in all seriousness, this is a big deal. The Celtics are struggling to block shots this year (Block Rate is second-to-last at 3.3). With Perkins not there to push people around, teams should theoretically have an easy time getting to the rim. But at some point (and maybe they already have), opposing players are going to think twice before they recklessly drive to the basket with Big Baby looming in the paint.
  • And lastly, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that the Celtics are dead last in Offensive Rebound Rate, because that’s generally their style. As a result, they’re only allowing 11.8 fast-break points per game. Don’t crash the boards, get back on defense, and give those geriatric legs a chance to get in position.

So what do people think? Why is this year’s Celtics’ defense able to be effective, despite the fact that opponents are shooting relatively well against them?

  • TMC

    From what I have seen in games so far this year, the big guys have been able to hold their own down low so they have minimized double teams down low, allowing the wings to stay with their man and prevent penetration (someone want to back me up on this? how few back door cuts have we seen opposing teams make). KG as always been at his best at the defensive end, but he looks much more spry defending on the low block compared to last season , and its not like anyone in the leage can push shaq around.

  • What More Can I Say?

    The higher FG rate is because of one person. Kendrick Perkins. That man always gets a hand in someone's face when a shot goes up and he is/was the Celtic's leading shot blocker. 2 stats that will be affected when he comes back; KG's rebounds a game and the opposition's FG's a game.

    FYI…KG has also been a problem for the opposition in the passing lanes too. I am NOT a statistician, but I bet him and Rondo got the team in the top 10 in steals. That is two sets of extremely long arms.

    • Devin_in_Maine

      KG and Rondo are both in the top 20 in the league for steals. Rondo has 28 and KG has 17.

      I was actually surprised to see how many teams have two guys in the top 20 for steals. Boston, New Orleans, Spurs, Philly, and Golden State.

      Definitely having two guys in the top 20 makes an impact…unless you're Philly…

      • What More Can I Say?

        Agreed. Do you know where Boston as a team rates?

        • Devin_in_Maine

          ESPN has them at 9th in the league at 8.3 steals per game. The Lakers are 8th with 8.4 steals per game.

          • zebulon

            I can't find team steal rate statistics anywhere, but by dividing the 8.3 steals Devin mentions by our average pace of 95.6 possessions a game, the C's steal rate is 8.66%. KG, Rondo, and Quis currently lead the C's in individual steal rate, each over 2.5%. Steal rate is the percentage of opponent possessions that end in a steal by a given player.

  • Jason

    If you make a strategic decision to shut down LeBron and Rose and allow Haslem and Noah to shoot 5000%, that hurts your percentage. I also think it's small sample, bad luck thing. It seems the Cs are doing the same things as always: no layups, close hard on 3s, force contested long 2s. It just seems a lot of opponents are just hitting those shots anyway. It happens. I think this number will come down.

  • Kevin

    They are doing the one thing that you consistently see bad teams not do – rotate. They are aware on the defensive end and know when someone on their team is in need of help. They do a great job of cutting off the lane, and even when someone does make it into the paint he usually has to finish over someone trying to block the shot. Also, the entire team rotates so that the person who is left open is generally not in a good position to score or receive the ball immediately. Instead of drive and kick it's drive, kick, skip pass. That leaves more time for the Celtics to close out and chase people off of the 3 point line. Delonte West's return will help a great deal also.

  • Fafnir

    Why would you use FG% instead of eFG%? The Celtics are 8th at defending the three ball which is a very important aspect of defense.

    It moves them up to 9th in the NBA at eFG% of .487.

    I'd also be more interested in FG% at the rim as well as shots at the rim. Those two areas would indicate a bigger problem than raw FG%. (also the loss of Perkins shot blocking would effect that)

    • zebulon

      Agreed, 100%. FG% defense… doesn't mean anything. By that stat, the most effective possible defense would be forcing your opponent to take only threes, even if they shot them at a 40% rate.

      Like Fafnir says, the C's are solidly above average in eFG% defense (per Hoopdata) ranking ninth and ahead of both the Lakers and San Antonio. They also rank sixth in opponent TOR (turnover rate), with Orlando and Milwaukee the only likely playoff teams above them.

      The C's are all the way down at ninth in opponent FG% at the rim, with opposing players shooting 60.6% on layups and dunks. Each of the other three 'title contenders' (Lakers, Heat, Magic) is above the C's in this stat, with Orlando ranking #1 with opponents connecting on only 54%(!) of their at-rim shots. Unfortuantely, the C's also let opponents take more shots than average at the rim per game, allowing 22.6 shots as opposed to the 22.0 league average. I attribute this increase to the lack of strong play from the C's centers on the season – instead of Perk blocking more than two shots/36 minutes, we have Jermaine "I forgot how to play basketball" O'Neal, Semih "obligatory white center" Erden, and Shaquille "the statue" O'Neal manning the middle, and allowing a few more easy looks at the rim a game.

      • KBA

        JO is actually a really good shot blocker and we saw flashes of that in the limited time he's been on court. IF he can get healthy and get used to the system, I have not doubt he will be very productive on defense as well as offense. Any two man combination of a healthy Perk, Shaq and JO would be tough to go against in the playoffs. All 3, forget about it!

        Good point about Thibs. I was sure the defense would go down without Thibs but Lawrence Frank is as good as a replacement as one could get, and looks like he is doing a great job.

        • zebulon

          Jermaine has definitely shown flashes of why he anchored one of the best defenses in the league last year (Miami finished the season 3rd in defensive efficiency!), but his inconsistency across the board made him a net negative on defense so far this year, I think. In a completely unscientific study, I remember a few of his blocks coming on late weakside rotations, which even though he stopped the bucket isn't really good defense.

  • BunkerHillG

    There are two major differences between this year's defense and last year's (or the last three years). The first Mike mentioned – Perk. The second is Tom Thibbs. I don't know what the effect of losing the coach ultimately is, but I think it has to be considered.