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How Good Is Boston’s Defense?

It’s mid-November and the Boston Celtics are 8th in the East, surprising everyone who watched their first four games, and nobody in Brad Stevens’ immediate family.

Boston has a below average offense, is one of the 10 worst rebounding teams in the league, and turns the ball over like crazy.

So, rumors about Jordan Crawford appearing as himself in The Avengers 2 notwithstanding, what’s keeping the Celtics competitive? You could point to half a dozen factors (Avery Bradley changing positions, Brandon Bass shooting 99.9% from the mid-range, the revelation that Stevens has actual telekinesis) in answering such a general question, but it’s my sense that defense is their brightest light.

The Celtics are 1.3 points per 100 possessions out of the top 10 in defensive rating, so they’re clearly above average. But that shouldn’t be the point so much as how disciplined they look against offenses that really know what they’re doing, such as the supremely efficient Miami Heat. They’re allowing 3.2 corner three attempts per game, which is the league’s lowest mark. And from those attempts, opponents are shooting a measly 37% (seventh lowest).

This isn’t a coincidence. Boston has skilled perimeter defenders who do a solid job keeping ball-handlers out of the paint, which is the first step towards preventing the NBA’s second most desired shot (the first being a dunk). But even when opponents infiltrate the paint and look to kick the ball out, the Celtics are maniacal in rotation. Open looks are all but impossible thanks to rapid fire closeouts; even though it’s early in the season, guys already know where they’re supposed to be, and don’t hesitate to get there.

Look at Jeff Green on the initial closeout. Then Bass runs Arron Afflalo off the three-point line and Phil Pressey rotates over to cut the drive. The ball is swung, and Courtney Lee flies from the paint to contest what would be a straight away three-pointer by Jameer Nelson. He gets a finger on Nelson’s next pass, and Boston scores the other way. It sounds obvious, but the more passes an offense has to make, the likelier it is they’ll turn it over.

Boston is great reacting to quick ball movement, but also just following basic principles that undisciplined teams often stray from. I’ve yet to see a strong side defender leave his man in the corner when an opponent rumbles towards the basket. So instead of wide open looks from behind the arc, Boston forces their opponent into a contested two in the paint.

(Hats off to Kelly Olynyk in this regard. The rookie isn’t Serge Ibaka, but he’s already made legitimate strides as a help defender along the baseline.)

The Celtics conversion from offense to defense has also been stellar. According to mySynergySports, they have the fifth best transition defense in the league. Why is that remarkable? For starters, they have the seventh highest turnover percentage, but allow the ninth fewest fast break points per 48 minutes, and the fourth fewest points off turnovers. (Fun, probably meaningless point of reference: the undefeated Indiana Pacers have a slightly worse team turnover percentage, but are the 19th ranked transition defense.)

The Celtics get back on defense, mostly because they’re so young, and doing it any other way results in confusion back on the other end. Watch what happens to Olynyk after he wildly flies in to try and grab an offensive board.

Green has to pick up Olynyk’s man (Nikola Vucevic, suddenly the best center of all time), and the rookie’s hesitation allows Orlando to hit Green’s man in the corner for an open three.

Now contrast that with this sequence. Bass launches a baseline jumper and when the rebound lands in Vucevic’s hands, all five Celtics are between their man and their own rim. They get back, defend a pick-and-roll on both sides of the court, and eventually force a turnover.

The basic scheme here is wonderful, and it works for this fast, smart Celtics team. Miami scores a basket in each of the following two clips, but the results in these possessions aren’t nearly as important as how Boston plays during them. They switch, double, move their feet, help, rotate, fight through screens, and deny the ball. They work as one, and it’s nearly perfect both times.

In addition to team synergy, the Celtics have three guys who, on the ball, have flashed moments where they look like the best at their respective positions: Avery Bradley (what a shock!), Gerald Wallace, and Brandon Bass. When those three are on the court together the Celtics hold opponents to a flabby 90.2 points per 100 possessions, which would be second best in the NBA. (The Pacers allow 89.5 points per 100 possessions as a team.) This is also Stevens’ fourth favorite three-man combination, with good reason.

It isn’t all well and dandy, though. Boston’s still allowing the fifth most shot attempts in the restricted area, Jared Sullinger and Bass could afford to play quicker and smarter in the pick-and-roll (Sullinger specifically, whose speed—or lack thereof—has been exposed by big men who pop and shoot), and while you were reading the previous sentence, Crawford’s man beat him on another back cut.

But for the most part, the Celtics are hearing what their intelligent coach has to say, and it’s showing on the court. If this whole tanking thing is Boston’s genuine vision (please let it be), Danny Ainge hired a coach who’s too smart to execute it.

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  • hax

    Steez is the worst nickname ever. Jordon needs a real nickname like Crawfish. I'm calling him that for now on.

  • Morpheus

    I hate tanking. HATE IT. No team should ever play to lose. What a cop out. Get that tanking shit outta here.

    • The Cardinal

      I don't see how a team with a rookie coach, a lot of young rotation players including two rookies and a 2nd year guy, and intense veterans like Wallace and Crawford could pull it off even if management wanted them to try and in this age of instant electronic communications, management would indeed be fools to even hint at such.

      Times have changed and I just don't think teams can get away with the owner/GM-backed M.L. Carr types of coaching and rotations anymore without the players openly protesting on Twitter, etc…The coaches and players in Boston, Philly, Orlando, Phoenix, etc…don't give a damn about Power Rankings, etc… – they are going out there and trying to kick the other teams' butts!

      These teams have flipped the script on the scribes by looking like early season playoff contenders. Meanwhile, projected contenders like Brooklyn, LAC, Houston, New York, Memphis and even Miami are being whupped upside the head by projected lottery teams. Yet still, it's rare to read two articles in a row about the C's, Philly, etc…that don't mention that damn "t" word. Sheesh – it's like the time-tested political strategy of repeating a lie often and loudly enough until it is accepted as the truth by the people who already want to believe the lie to begin with.

  • CelticsBIG3

    I've already said this, but how many times has tanking actually worked? The way I see it playing out is like this; we'll play pretty well up to the all star break where at that point guys who can help contenders will be moved. Such as Wallace, Bass, Humphries, and maybe a few others. At that point, I think that tanking will just kind of take care of itself. We just won't have enough pieces to really win a lot of games anymore.

  • skeeds

    Wait. Doesn't tanking make sense when your team sucks so much *ss that you basically need a new team all together?
    How the hell has that anything to do with this group? This team is already playing proper basketball and getting better by the game. We have an allstar pg on vacation, 2-3 very good veteran role players and enough assets to trade for Carmelo Anthony. (I'm looking right at your pathetic faces, Knicks). I say screw the tanking scenario.
    Even if we draft Jesus F. Christ we'll still need trades to build a contender. Ask all the teams that tanked, in the past decade. Even the Wolves or the Cavs, teams blessed with REALLY good picks, are still struggling to put together lower seed playoff rosters, before their young stars get bored of that sh*t and jump to a contender, as they do.

    *Fun fact, the only #1 pick to lead the team that drafted him to a championship in the past 20 years is Timmy.

    I'm not even going to pretend that I have an opinion about who we should trade for, but I honestly think that a team with as many good pieces, assets and a front office as agressive as the C's is not gonna wait for a savior to come through the draft.

    • The Cardinal

      Valid point. Realistically, the 2014 draft is less important to the rebuilding effort of the Celtics than the "experts" would have you believe. As a core group, we already have a solid group of young players at all 5 positions to build around. Draft well next year (a lottery pick isn't necessary to do this), and use the money coming off the books to sign a couple of immediate impact veterans, and suddenly you've got something special:
      1) Bradley, whose a top 5 defensive guard already and as a pure 2 guard, has shown the potential to be a pretty decent shooter.
      2) Sullinger, who is a beast on the offensive boards, is great passer and has displayed the ability score inside and outside the paint.
      3) Faverani, who has some legitimate size for a center and see Sullinger's write up for the rest.
      4) Olynyk, who projects out as a future 4/5 hybrid All Star.
      5) Crawford, who is maturing in front of us and who is simply too skilled a player on offense not to keep as we move forward. This kid could very well become a top 3 sixth man in the league.
      6) Green, we've all seen.
      7) Rondo, ditto.

      • skeeds

        ah, nice to see I'm not the only crazy person who's not drooling over the 2014 draft. Don't get me wrong, the kids coming in this summer look very promising. Still, truth is, gamechangers come once in a generation, and rarely, if ever, do they stick around to lead the team that drafted them to a championship.
        We do need a high profile trade though. And it will take giving up some of those nice assets you mentioned. Problem is, the market is low on unhappy allstars on bad teams. If only this was 3-4 years ago…

  • Michael Pina

    Why are the comments on this post centered around tanking?

    • Probably because of the line at the end talking about how we don't have the right coach to tank.