Right now, on the floor, the Boston Celtics don’t do a lot of things very well. Out of 30 teams, they rank 26th in turnover rate, 27th in True Shooting percentage, 26th in free-throw rate, 28th in three-point percentage, 28th in fouls drawn, 27th in points per game, 25th in restricted area field goal percentage, and last but not least, are madly in love with the mid-range jumper.
All those stats are related to offense, in case you didn’t notice. So it should come as no surprise that Boston is scoring only 98.7 points per 100 possessions. They’re proud owners of the NBA’s second worst offense. Woo!
Not too different from the past six years (and yet a million miles apart), the Celtics are staying in games with defense. This group isn’t a top-three bunch like the drooling wolf packs led by Kevin Garnett and Tom Thibodeau, but they’ve been above average most of the season.
It’s all the more impressive when you actually look at Boston’s personnel and realize there’s very little size up front, and absolutely no rim protector (the single most important ingredient for almost every top tier defense in the league).
This is how they looked on opening night, and injuries have weakened them even further—Vitor Faverani is gone for the year, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger have been in and out of the lineup with various issues, and Avery Bradley (obviously not a member of Boston’s frontcourt, but whose absence has a substantial trickle down effect) has missed the past month with a bruised right ankle—yet Boston’s defense still ranks 14th in the league, ahead of the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns.
What makes them so effective? Lots of stuff, but the juiciest reason is how well Boston defends the three-point line. At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a couple weeks ago, Brad Stevens was asked whether he could see the Celtics falling in line with other intelligent teams across the league and adopting the three-point line as a backbone of his offense. His response, and I’m going off memory here, was “DEFENSE DEFENSE DEFENSE.”
Stevens understands how tempting it is to become addicted to the three ball. Many teams are rightfully obsessed with it, and his priority is to prevent those teams from taking the efficient shots they’re constantly hunting for.
Opponents make 6.5 threes per 48 minutes against Boston, the second lowest mark in the league. They only attempt 18.8, which is fourth lowest. Guarding the corners, Boston allows 4.4 attempts per game (sixth lowest) and hold shooters to a 33.7% clip (second lowest, behind only the Houston Rockets). The 1.5 corner threes scored on Boston trails only the Portland Trail Blazers, who allow 0.2 fewer per game.
This isn’t a new thing. The Celtics have ranked this highly guarding the three-point line all season. For them to maintain their focus and stick to Stevens’ scheme should be commended in a year with little to smile about. Last Friday, Boston held the Brooklyn Nets to 4-of-30 shooting behind the arc. The Nets are an above average three-point shooting team. They attempt more per 48 minutes than the Miami Heat, and are more accurate than the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A little bit of luck is involved whenever an opponent misses 26 threes, but it wasn’t all that. The Celtics beat the Nets in part because of timely rotations and quick-witted hustle. They contested a large number of those threes, and ran Brooklyn off the line before they could attempt even more. Here’s one example:
In a recent scrum with reporters, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich enlightened those paying attention by mentioning that any given shooter’s percentage will “go down almost by 20, almost without exception” when they’re contested vs. wide open. This seems obvious, but shines a light on how important it’ll always be to make a simple hustle play. Rotating into correct position takes intelligence, but it’s also reflexes and reacting to the pass. There’s very little time to think, only time to move.
The Celtics contest like hell. Here are several plays from the Brooklyn game that show how committed Boston is to introducing the palm of their hand to a shooter’s face.
This season may not be the happiest one in Celtics history, but this particular area is extremely positive going forward; fencing off the three-point line is something winning teams do. In time the Celtics will have more talent to balance things out on the other end, but for now it’s good to know their coach has his priorities in order.