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Exploring Boston’s Inconsistent (But Improving) Pick-And-Roll Defense

 

Since acquiring Kevin Garnett in July of 2007, the Boston Celtics have proudly identified themselves with defensive excellence. It’s a personality that led them to two NBA Finals, helped raise a league leading 17th banner, and stunted the natural evolution of LeBron James—possibly the most prodigious basketball player who’s ever lived. Even in dire times when their sword was lost in battle, the Celtics could always rely on that impenetrable shield, pushing them forward to fight another day.

Boston’s layered style of defense is now seen throughout the NBA, effectively copied because of its obvious success. Say what you want about expectations—or how “just one championship” would be considered a failure given the incredible collection of talent, character, coaching, and cohesiveness the Celtics have had these last five years—but their imprint on the league, from a historical perspective, can’t be denied.

What’s makes this all so impressive is not just the general dominance, but the incredible consistency. Here’s how Boston has ranked league wide in defensive rating over the past five seasons: 1, 2, 5, 2, 2. In order to do this you need several things: capable personnel, trust, experience, and communication. The Celtic clearly have the players and collective intelligence. But right now trust issues have been extremely detrimental. This season they’re currently ranked 22.

A big reason for the slide can be explained by their unmercifully terrible job in transition, where, according to Synergy, they’re the very worst team in basketball. But transition kinks should smooth themselves out as the season goes along and their offense improves.

A greater concern is the team’s pick-and-roll defense. It’s the most used half court set in the game, and guarding it successfully on a consistent basis usually dictates what type of season you’re going to have. Here are Boston’s pick-and-roll defense numbers (both against ball-handlers and roll men) from the last two seasons.

2010-11: Allowed 0.91 points per possession against P&R roll men (1st in league). Allowed 0.77 PPP against P&R ball-handlers (3rd in league).

2011-12: Allowed 0.94 PPP against P&R roll men (7th in league). Allowed 0.71 PPP against P&R ball-handlers (1st in league).

2012-13 (so far): Allowing 1.02 PPP against P&R roll men (15th in league). Allowing 0.71 PPP against P&R ball-handlers (10th in league)

Their PPP number against ball-handlers is the exact same now as it was last season, but that’s more of a reflection on poor opposition than their own stable play. (That 0.71 PPP against opposing ball handlers doesn’t make Doc Rivers sleep comfortably.) If they play with the same tentativeness against basketball teams that don’t reside in Washington D.C. or Milwaukee, that number is sure to rise dramatically.

Other organizations would accept those rankings, but the Celtics aren’t other teams. They’re a championship contender with an average (at BEST) offense that uses non-sexy, yet crucial, aspects of the game (like pick-and-roll defense) to keep their head above water. Early on this season the mistakes have been plentiful, and nearly all of them are based on a distinct lack of schematic credence.

Frontcourt defenders have been rotating back to cover their rolling or popping man before they should, not trusting their back three defenders to rotate over and do it for them. It creates problems at the top, as you can see in the following clip.

Rookie forward Jared Sullinger hedges nicely on Rajon Rondo’s man, A.J. Price (who shot 43.8% from behind the three-point line in last year’s postseason), but begins to shuffle back about two seconds too soon. Part of this is on Rondo, who inexplicably gets delayed in the screen, but it’s Sullinger’s impatience that allows a wide open, dead-eye three-pointer.

Even if you know absolutely nothing about basketball, take a look at the screen shot below and tell me which player is facing the wrong direction.

This next clip doesn’t have much to do with trust, it’s more an uncharacteristic technical mistake that the Celtics have made more this season than I can remember seeing before.

Jump shooting specialist Brandon Bass places himself on the complete wrong side of the play. There’s no containment; he blindly chooses the wrong side and renders himself useless. When a color commentator signals a player as being “out of position,” this is exactly what they’re talking about.

Over the past five years, Boston’s general strategy against high pick-and-rolls has been to crowd the ball-handler with both participating defenders, forcing the rock from his hands and into the arms of a less lethal teammate.

Once the pass is made, a third Celtic defender rotates towards the ball, away from whoever he was originally assigned to guard. Then another pass and another rotation, leaving opponents with less efficient means of scoring than they would like.

In the past, each player knew where his teammate was going to be, and the trust that was fostered created this powerful symbol of five basketball players reacting as one. At the start of this season Boston looked disjointed; the sight of green jerseys panicking on the defensive end was scary and unfamiliar.

The initial moves Boston makes up front are sound and what we’re all used to seeing. And then Jeff Green has a brain fart. Instead of rotating down and covering Garnett’s man, he chooses to defend nobody at the left elbow, leaving Samuel Dalembert wide open beneath the hoop. (To his credit, Bass hustles all the way from the three-point line down to the basket in an attempt to block the shot.)

The red arrow identifies where Green should be shading. It’s a correctable blunder, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll be making the same type of mistake in April.

The Celtics are too good and too experienced not to clean up their uncharacteristically awful play. Later in this very same game they began to prove it.

As the Bucks initiate a pick-and-roll at the top of the key, Paul Pierce recognizes the action and passes his man (Mike Dunleavy) off to a teammate. Pierce places himself in ready position to rotate underneath the basket and contest a would-be dunk from Dalembert. Awesome job.

In another example, this one coming during last night’s win over the Bulls, Boston does a great job defending a side pick-and-roll with Joakim Noah and Richard Hamilton, forcing the aging shooting guard to throw a difficult cross court pass to Luol Deng. It’s exactly what the Celtics want because it affords them plenty of time to rotate back towards the ball as it makes its way over their heads. The result is a contested jumper that clangs off the front of the rim.

I’m not one to panic in a season that isn’t even 10 games young, but the sample size is large enough to identify some noticeable problems we haven’t seen in recent years. Problems that on some levels are already showing serious improvement.

Twitter: @ShakyAnkles

  • celticsfan

    great observation and analysis. the celtics are going to improve on their defense sooner than later.

  • dslack

    Nice post, Michael.

  • Normhimself

    Great post, I can't tell you how much I learn from articles like this. I'm trying to learn how to read offense and defense this year. On another note, last nights game gave me a lot of hope for great things to come. GO BOSTON!!

  • CelticsBIG3

    Michael you are far and away the best writer on this site.

  • Josh

    I like how Michael mixes it up with an analytical side. Good balance and chemistry on this site. This year's defense has been noticeably worse than in years past, and it really worries me. I think the biggest reason for this is that we have 10 new faces and the guys' chemistry/communication is still a work in progress.

  • sophomore

    Nice analysis – thanks for posting!

  • GowGow

    It's true what they say. I learn a lot from these kind of posts.

  • Phil

    Nice article. I was actually going to suggest a breakdown on the PnR defense since it's been such a big deal this year (and concurrently such a tough thing to understand as a fan.) Kudos on the mind reading and the content.

  • Morpheus

    Beautiful article. I could sit down all day reading stuff like this.

  • oxygen

    The thing I don't understand is you say Bass was completely on the wrong side of the play on the P and R with the bucks. The Guard went right and the front court player is supposed to show hard and stop him from driving while his teammate recovers. KG had to pick up BB's man and Jeff Green or someone on the weak side needed to drop done and give help. They need to see whats unfolding and be there in time on the weak side. I think its an issue with rotations more than anything. Then if Sam D kicks out to the weak side we need to close out the 3 point shooter and Box out.

  • janos

    hi micheals, is Janos

    welcome back post ';here, was miss on you. this articles very good and helpfuls for me learn. you are true expert nba.

    on un relate; are you see this messes on laker? double coach trick? is shady deals embaras of them; shame jackson coach. not profession moves.

  • oxygen

    you know what never mind. I was looking at the wrong video. Disregard my comment. I believe you were referring to the Wizards Vid.

    • michaelpina

      Not a worry. And thanks to everyone for all the kind words. Glad you liked it.

  • poweboyz

    Awesome post! If only TNT broadcasters were so insightful!

    • CelticsBIG3

      The TNT broadcasters aren't interested in explaining anything. Just f'n off. I'm sure your refering to Kenny, EJ, Shaq, and Chuck.

  • I Bleed Green

    Have to disagree that the initial moves were sound in the Milwaukee P&R aka "Jeff Green's brain fart". It was a breakdown for 3 players, and I'd say the biggest breakdown was actually a tossup between Bass and Lee. Bass showed too hard, got stuck on the dribler and basically took himself out of the play. Lee didn't respond to the overplay and stayed on the ball instead of switching men and picking up the man on the wing, which would have allowed KG to stay home on Dalembert. Green was in position to guard the shooter spotted up outside the arc, which is where he should be in the play….but with the blown switch he got stuck having to guard two open men (in the same freeze frame with the arrow pointing out where Green should be, you could put a big circle around Bass and say – why the hell is he out that far?). Green made the wrong choice failing to pick up the man closest to the basket and trust somebody else will rotate over to contest the shooter if they swing the ball, but Bass being stuck outside the arc on a simple show is the pure definition of "being out of position".

    • michaelpina

      Bass isn't a perfect defender, but his job here is to force the ball out of the point guard's hands, which he succeeds at.

  • I Bleed Green

    In watching them all more closely, I'd say the same problem is evident in the second Milwaukee clip. Lee is slow to recognize the pick, doesn't ready himself to go over or under so he gets hung up. Bass does a good job of stopping the ball but overplays it a bit and Lee is clearly playing to stay on his man (probably should have switched) so Bass had to run down his man. Pierce does a great job of switching and challenging the shot…but if that pass is made to a player with any kind of mid-range game that's an easy 5 – 8 ft jumper.

    It's a really slight breakdown, but one that great teams will pick the C's apart with if they don't improve.

    Thank's for the clips and breaking it down Michael. It's nice to have a chance to see the details.

    • michaelpina

      Anytime, thanks for reading.

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