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.