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Just How Much Is Boston’s Defense Improving?

“It’s been great, it really has been. We can’t string a streak of wins together yet, but you can feel us playing better….We’re treading water but I like our trend. I like where we’re going.” — Doc Rivers, commenting on his defense’s recent play after Saturday night’s home victory against Philadelphia

Through approximately one quarter of their 2012-13 season, the Celtics have given up 100.7 points per 100 possessions, which, if sustained, would make them the worst defensive team Boston’s had since trading for Kevin Garnett. (In 2010, the Celtics gave up 101.1 points per 100 possessions, but ended the season as a top five defense; right now they’re ranked 11th.)

Data that covers a wide span of time can be dangerous because it ultimately clouds how a team has recently been playing. Boston’s defense is a great example, and fresh(er) statistics show their play has reflected more of what we’re accustomed to seeing these past few seasons.

  • In the last 10 games (beginning with the blowout loss to Detroit) they’ve allowed the eighth fewest points per possession in the league. In the last eight games (beginning with the victory over Oklahoma City) they’ve lept to fourth, giving up a measly 95.9 points per 100 possessions. In their last five games (of which they played Portland and Milwaukee without Rajon Rondo, Minnesota, and Philadelphia twice) they’ve allowed 92.2 points per 100 possessions, which is best in the league over that span.
  • In their last 10 games, their opponents have grabbed the seventh fewest offensive rebonds and posted a team turnover percentage of 16.1%, good for ninth worst—for them, ninth best for the Celtics—in the league.
  • The Celtics are still giving up way too many free-throw attempts. (This season the Bobcats, Suns, Wizards, Trail Blazers, and Pistons are all allowing fewer free-throw attempts per field goal attempt, which is embarrassing but hardly a death knell. Boston has been below average in this area for the past five years, and it hasn’t stopped them from seeing tons of success. Glass half full says it’s a sign of consistency; showing a return to who they’ve been.)
  • The starting lineup is allowing 96.6 points per 100 possessions, and if you replace Brandon Bass with Jeff Green (a unit Doc Rivers hadn’t used since the Oklahoma City/San Antonio two games in three nights stretch, but chose to lean on in Philadelphia over the weekend), they’re still only giving up 98.5 points per 100 possessions.
  • The man at the head of the table, once again, is Garnett. When he’s been on the court in their past eight games, the Celtics have allowed basically nothing from opponents (0.88 PPP), and 1.07 PPP when he’s on the bench. He remains a significant player in the grand scheme of things. Also, HD televisions make for better viewing than non-HD televisions.
  • Here are some fun stats courtesy of Synergy: the Celtics are the league’s third best defensive team in isolation situations (0.69 points per possessions), third against pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.67 PPP), fifth against spot up shots (0.85 PPP), and first defending off screen action (0.67 PPP).

Related to that last bullet, sort of: In isolation situations, the same Paul Pierce whose ankle bones are rumored to be held together by duct-tape is allowing just 0.60 PPP, making him a top 15 best defender in the league for this situation, per Synergy. On 37 shot attempts, opponents have scored only 11 baskets. For comparison’s sake, opponents are shooting 7-25 against LeBron James (0.73 PPP), 4-16 (!) against Andre Iguodala (0.43 PPP), and 10-23 against Luol Deng (1.04 PPP).

These numbers aren’t perfect because they don’t account for a player watching his man blow by him to tally an easy assist, but they do indicate that it might be a little early to denounce Pierce’s ability as an individual defender. Here are two clips of the 35-year-old defending one of the basketball’s all-time (yes, I went there) scorers. Even though one of the shots goes in (mostly because Kevin Durant simply does what he wants more times than not with the ball in his hands) Pierce’s foot speed, strength, balance, and intelligence are all what you’d like to see from a defender.

Now that we’re 20 games into the season, more than a handful of possessions have shown how effective the Celtics defense can be. But on Saturday night in Philadelphia, we were witness to 23.5 seconds of play that stands as a perfect example of why Boston appears to be back on track.

Here’s all that happened:

Jrue Holiday and LaVoy Allen start the play by initiating a pick-and-roll that has Holiday curl right towards the basket. It’s promptly blitzed and snuffed by Garnett and Rondo. After picking up his dribble near the right wing, Holiday is then forced to pass it out to Evan Turner 25 feet from the basket above the three-point line. (The combination of Garnett and Terry prevent a simple dump off to Allen, and the cross court pass to Jason Richardson in the corner is too risky to attempt.)

Check No. 1: The Celtics have successfully thwarted Philadelphia’s first offensive action of the possession with their signature pick-and-roll defense.

Isolated at the top, Pierce finds himself covering Turner behind the three-point line, with his four teammates all rotated and in perfect position to help—especially Garnett, who has both feet in the paint while still holding responsibility for his man.

Check No. 2: The Celtics make a drive to the basket not as much fun as Evan Turner wishes.

Instead of forcing something all sorts of foolish, Turner begins his drive left then wisely dumps it down to Allen, who’s standing on the baseline about 16 feet to the left of the basket. Not allowing a single dribble, Garnett quickly closes, forcing a pass back to Turner.

Check No. 3: See where Rondo is when Allen catches the ball? He and Bass are in perfect position to rotate should Allen put the ball on the floor and drive baseline (not likely, but still).

After passing it to Turner, Allen immediately sets a ball screen to create a possible drive left and towards the baseline. Turner shrugs it off and heads in the other direction, away from the pick and toward the center of the court (and the heart of Boston’s defense).

Check No. 4: As Pierce stays with Turner and Bass shifts over to offer insurance, Holiday cuts to the basket, but Rondo shoots the gap and nearly picks off a messy bounce pass. Jason Terry is also in great help defense position, denying the pass back to Richardson, who wouldn’t be of much use if he got the ball anyway.

Holiday somehow controls the pass, but with less than five seconds remaining on the shot clock needs to force up a contested mid-range jumper with Rondo right in his face. (Holiday is shooting 31% on jumpers from 16-23 feet so far this season.)

Check No. 5: Both Garnett and Bass are in great position to come in and grab a defensive rebound, cleanly ending the type of defensive possession elite teams tend to showcase on a regular basis.

(Check No. 6: After Bass corralled the rebound, the Celtics needed five seconds to get up the court and convert two points the other way on a transition layup by Pierce. This technically doesn’t qualify as two points off a turnover, but the Celtics will take it just the same.)

Here’s the play in real time:

An historically great team defense shouldn’t fall off a cliff because a few less significant parts have been replaced, should it? Not when the important pieces (Garnett, Rondo, Pierce, Rivers) are still there, still on top of their game, and still well aware that strong defense remains the personality this team needs if they want to be recognized as a true championship contender.

Boston’s inability to stop opponents from doing what they wanted early on was worrisome, but it appears things are either back to normal or pretty close to it.

Twitter: @MichaelVPina

  • tomrod

    Awesome post. Makes me feel much better. Terry and Bass seem like above average defenders too. Also Lee. Green and Sullinger can be average. If you add Fab Melo and Bradley, this could be an awesome defensive team going foward.

    I think we may have KG's sub in Fab Melo.

  • High Rollers

    Again, nice one, Pina. You made my day just a little bit brighter with your rundown of the D.

  • CelticsBIG3

    Michael, ALL of the writing should be left to you.

    • janos

      hi big3

      I am not know on ALL post but is concern mine main efforts come from pinas and other guys not make a post effort ; on current ; on consistnt.

  • smalltownID

    Very nice Michael. I wasn’t able to see the video but the description precludes it’s necessity. I hope you are right and KG/Doc have the Celts whipped into defensive shape. Looking forward to watching more games.

  • Guest


  • IBleedGreen

    Michael Pina is the best writer on this site, by far.

    • Josh_5

      Don't be too narrow minded. As great a write Michael is, I love the great variety you get here! (Michael's analytical, Hayes humor, etc)

      • janos

        i miss haynes is he go vacate?

      • CelticsBIG3

        Its not about being narrow minded. He doesn't contribute a tremendous amount, but everything Michael contributes is well thought out, analytical, great writing about basketball that you don't really see anywhere.

  • Nice summary and glad the defence for the C’s is clicking a bit more. In light of this play I would comment that there was also perhaps some poor offensive execution. On the initial pick and roll play, the ball handler perhaps over dribbled. Had he hit the rolling player after his the defence committed two players to the ball handler they may have been an easy score down the lane or a secondary assist to a cutting baseline player as the baseline defender came to help in the middle. Just an observation which is easy to make from my comfy chair 😉

  • hydrofluoric

    Not to play devil's advocate as I saw how amazing we looked against OKC… but it's Philly. Would be great to get some phenomenal breakdowns like this on a team like OKC or MIA. And along those same lines, we should probably hold off on celebrating the 92 D-rating until it's against some good offenses, right?

  • Josh_5

    Great article Michael, and its actually super weird because it's like you read my mind. Last night I was crunching numbers myself because I noticed how the C's haven't allowed 100+ points since the Orlando game. I started to get curious about the fact that our defense over that span has slowly gotten sneaky good. Thanks for the in-depth analysis.

  • janos

    very good efforts here write post and share videos it my hope you are get the big raise do best work here nba celtics are perhaps you help make schedules celtics nba come on site now?

  • check12check

    anyone who didn't think the Celtics would round into shape clearly does not know how the Celtics opperate

  • CelticsBIG3

    Anyone see this yet? http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embed… The Lakers worked on defense for "half an hour in practice". LOL

    • french jujubean

      cool. hopefully they keep working that way. They won't scare anybody. This year will show the world how the Lakers are just a freaking big joke.

      • CelticsBIG3

        "YOUR STARTING TO PISS ME OFF!!!" Is anyone surprised that the Knicks became a better defensive team almost instantly after D'Antoni left and Woodson took over? I have to imagine that during the interview process between Mr. Pringles and rehiring Jackson, Nash HAD to of advocated for him. How about looking into Phoenix' track record vs. the Lakers in the playoffs during D'Antoni's Phoenix tenure? Duh….

    • janos

      good one thank you

  • skeeds

    It's really getting better, thankfully. We're still as good as KG makes us though. Look at how slow Rondo is going around the first pick. If that help defender was anyone other than KG, that's 2 easy points. It's only when you break things down frame by frame that you can appreciate what KG does on defense.
    Great read!