I’ve spent the entire season convinced the Celtics would be an early round out. As recently as yesterday, I was a cynic. And with good reason. The Celtics have many flaws, any single one of which could prove crippling: they’re a poor offensive team, they don’t rebound at all, they’re old, and there’s no depth should any of the top guys on the roster get hurt.
And yet they just took down Miami for the second time in ten days and even their recent losses to San Antonio and Chicago suggest they’re a team that should be in the title discussion.
More importantly, since Doc Rivers reworked his rotations, a starting five that contains an undersized power forward with no rep for defense and a second year guard who looked petrified as recently as three months ago is spearheading one of the greatest defensive performances in NBA history, as John Hollinger notes:
Boston has allowed an astounding 92.9 points per 100 possessions over its past 15 games, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, a figure which has propelled it to the league lead in defensive efficiency.
Let me help you try to grasp the significance of that 92.9 figure. The league average in offensive efficiency in that stretch shot up to 103.0, as every NBA team (except the ones playing Boston) found its post-lockout offensive rhythm.
So in the past 15 games, Boston’s defensive efficiency is a full 10 points better than the league average, a feat which nobody has done for a full season since … actually nobody has ever done that. Not even the 2008 champions, who were only 7.98 points better.
The lineup data supports the idea that Boston has found itself a defensive lineup for the ages. Check out the carnage on NBA.com’s advanced stats tool: When Bradley and Garnett play together, Boston gives up 88.8 points per 100 possessions, allows 38.8 percent shooting and forces nearly one turnover for every assist. This is scary stuff, and it’s not one of those small-minute flukes, either — they’ve played 658 minutes together.
You think that’s impressive? How’s this: When Rondo and Bradley play together, opponents average 82.2 points per 100 possessions.
That’s nearly 20 points below the league average. It’s in 271 minutes, so it’s not as robust a sample as the data with Garnett, but good heavens. The Celtics barely need to bother with an offense if the D is going to provide this kind of domination.
Hollinger is deliberately overstating that last point but those numbers are astonishing. And they convince me we’re not dealing with a mirage here. Moreover, with the smaller lineup, the Celtics are more capable of capitalizing in transition which means they’ll score more easily off their defensive stops. And they’ll have more energy to grind out defensive possessions.
Positive outcome breeds positive outcome. It’s just a wondrous little circle of basketball life, isn’t it?
Here’s what I now believe: the Celtics are likely to beat any other NBA team, including Miami and Chicago, with the sheer weight of their defense.
The question is: how often?
How often can the Celtics recover quickly enough between games to put forth the effort needed to sustain their defense? It was a problem in the second round last year when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett struggled to put together consecutive strong games in a row.
All those ridiculous jumpshots the C’s nailed down the stretch in Miami last night? Those happen one night in a row. But probably not two. Once the intensity gets amped up in the playoffs, and the minutes get longer for Boston’s older stars, recovery becomes more and more difficult and soon the Celtics are front-rimming jumpshots instead of attacking the rim. And they’re too tired to finish out possessions on defense and they’re surrendering second chance opportunities. Which further drains them.
Too much effort expended on one side of the ball limits what’s available for the other. It’s that same circle of basketball life. Except it sucks.
We’re going to have to watch the playoff schedule carefully because at a certain age, bodies pushed to their max can only recover so fast. And the dispersal of games and rest between them may have as much impact on how far the Celtics advance as anything that happens on the court.
Still, if that’s the major concern with all that’s come before now, I can’t imagine anyone is complaining.