“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.
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.