Yesterday after practice, Brad Stevens was asked about how Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass have been defending so well against starting lineups which are usually noticeably larger. Stevens complimented his bigs but pointed out that the defense has to be good around them.
“They do use their advantages well,” he said, “but at the same time they are small, so we have to be great around them at doing the little things. Specifically stopping the ball at the point of attack and rebounding.”
He’s absolutely right, as usual. Sullinger and Bass can do quite a bit with their “advantages” individually, but neither has the height or length to be rim protector. As such, when Jordan Crawford (who, for all of his improvements offensively, has been truly bad defensively) does stuff like this, it usually leads to points.
In that picture, the bigs are Hump and Faverani, but the point remains the same: Stopping the ball at the point of attack is really important for this team defensively.
Stopping the ball can be extremely difficult — this is, of course, why there are so many good point guards in the league. With hand-checking disallowed, guards like Kyrie Irving are hard to defend one-on-one, especially in the pick-and-roll. In the next screen shot, Irving took one dribble to his right, faking toward the screen, before dribbling away to his left. Avery Bradley, taken out of position by the feint to Irving’s right, is forced to try to recover, but Irving is past him.
As you can see, Sullinger recognizes a problem developing and is working to get over and cover Kyrie while Kris Humphries (another slightly undersized power forward) is ready to help on Anderson Varejao (Andrew Bynum, Hump’s defensive charge, is coming if you’d just give him a second guys, jeez). But even though Sullinger gets in Kyrie’s way and contests the shot…
…simply having an arm up in the air isn’t enough to stop Irving from scoring, as he knocked down this layup. It was imperative that Bradley stop Irving at the point of attack, an extremely tall task (and something Bradley actually did pretty well during the Cleveland game), but in this instance, Irving got past him and it led to two points. That’s probably going to be a common theme this year when ball-handlers beat Boston’s on-ball defenders — there just isn’t sufficient rim protection to make up for perimeter mistakes.
Despite the challenges they face, the Celtics’ defensive rating is currently ranked 9th in the NBA, allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions which is a massive testament to Stevens’ body of work so far. By way of contrast, the Pacers (owners of the top-ranked defensive rating at a rather stunning 93.5 points per 100 possessions) have rim protection both in their starting unit (Roy Hibbert, obviously) and in their second unit (Ian Mahinmi). As such, when perimeter defense breaks down in either unit, it’s much less of a death sentence for the defense as a whole.
Here, Jordan Crawford splits his defender (George Hill) and the hedging David West very nicely and makes his way to the rim. There is, however, a problem.
Ian Mahinmi isn’t Roy Hibbert (few people are), but his presence is enough to force Crawford into an extremely tough floater, since the lane is too clogged for him to dish to Vitor Faverani.
This is part of what makes the Pacers so difficult to handle (although big ups to Portland). Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill are all tough perimeter defenders in their own right, but they know they have back-up (incidentally, Tyson Chandler would literally kill a man to have Roy Hibbert’s perimeter defenders surrounding him).
The Celtics won’t have a top-ranked (or probably even top-5 ranked) defense this season without some semblance of rim protection, unless Faverani blossoms impossibly over the next few months. But the fact that Stevens can recognize the problems and make enough adjustments to carve out a top-10 defense with this squad (I mean…Jordan Crawford is getting 30+ minutes per night) is extremely impressive and makes one’s mouth water at the thought of Stevens getting his hands on a defensive-minded big sometime in the future.
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