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.