In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. One game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original "Every Play Counts" at FootballOutsiders.com.
This column has been in the works since Nov. 2. That night, I watched the Boston Celtics open the season by destroying the Washington Wizards 103-83 and realized I had made an enormous omission in the Celtics preview column I had written days earlier. I forgot all about the addition of Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy's long-time right-hand man well known for his expertise on the defensive end of the floor.
As the Wizards were shooting 35.0% from the field and 0-for-16 from three-point range, I recognized Thibodeau's influence. Nothing that has happened over the subsequent two-and-a-half months has changed my mind. The Celtics have led the league in Defensive Rating throughout the season. In fact, their performance has been nothing short of historic. Through Saturday, Boston had allowed 96.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark 10.9% better than the league average. If the Celtics keep it up, that would be the best mark since the NBA started tracking team turnovers in 1973-74, allowing us to rate defenses on a per-possession basis.
Year Team LADRtg*
2007-08 Boston 110.9
2003-04 San Antonio 109.3
1992-93 New York 108.5
1993-94 New York 108.5
2003-04 Detroit 108.2
*LADRtg is Defensive Rating adjusted for league average
How have the Celtics done it? In Kevin Garnett, they have a defensive anchor who has been selected to the All-Defense First Team six times. Second-year point guard Rajon Rondo has the potential to join him on the All-Defense Team, while center Kendrick Perkins is highly regarded defensively. In addition, reserves Tony Allen and James Posey are quality perimeter defenders. However, starting shooting guard Ray Allen has never been known for his defense, and reserve guard Eddie House's defensive lapses have long limited his minutes. That sounds like the recipe for a good defense, maybe even a very good one, but not one of the best in NBA history.
To try to get a better answer, I used NBA.com's League Pass archive to watch Saturday's Celtics loss in Washington. Yes, Boston lost, but not because of defense. The Wizards scored just 85 points in an estimated 86 possessions, but the Celtics were even worse on offense in the absence of starting point guard Rajon Rondo, committing 21 turnovers and scoring just 13 points in the fourth quarter.
What I saw and have seen watching Boston other times this season (including a game at Miami earlier this year that I TiVoed for an "Every Play Counts" breakdown, only to find the Heat's offense outside of Dwyane Wade was simply too inept for me to take much from the game) has me convinced that what the Celtics do on defense is deceptive in its simplicity. Much of the time, Boston doesn't look or feel as suffocating as the great Spurs defenses, but the results are equally impressive.
As I see it, there are three keys to the success the Celtics have enjoyed on defense.
Nothing Comes Easy
"You don't get a lot of easy baskets," an anonymous NBA advance scout told the Boston Globe last month. "The lane doesn't open up too much. Everybody seems to be contested. They follow their man through a possession. You don't see anyone set a pick that isn't followed through a possession."
This starts with transition defense. The Celtics do a fine job of getting back and gave up just 12 fast-break points to Washington despite a number of turnovers, including 14 Wizards steals (far more likely to turn into runouts). On two occasions, Boston players got back to stop seemingly certain Washington scores in transition, including a great block by Ray Allen.
After they've forced their opponents into a half-court set, the Celtics allow little dribble penetration. That's something that sounds easier than it really is, but is difficult for any player to work on one-on-one in practice. Allen and House most vulnerable to letting their opposing numbers by them. However, that rarely happened during Saturday's game.
One factor in the "nothing easy" philosophy that was not on display against the Wizards was Rondo's ability to pick up opposing point guards and pressure them the length of the court. As another anonymous scout told NBA.com's John Schumann, this helps take time off the clock.
"They're not really necessarily trying to steal the ball, but they're trying to take time off the shot clock," the scout said. "Now, instead of teams staring their offense at the 18- or 20-second mark, they want them to start at 16."
Even without Rondo's pressure, the Wizards were regularly up against the shot clock, even committing a couple of 24-second violations. Actually, they committed three, but the last one went uncalled on a crucial play late in the game with the Celtics down four. Brendan Haywood went to the free-throw line and split two shots on what should have been a stop.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, 82games.com indicates Boston's opponents don't end up taking a high percentage of their shots in the last four seconds of the shot clock. However, only Dallas and Orlando allow a lower effective field-goal percentage that late in the clock.
The Wizards aren't a great pick-and-roll team under the best of circumstances, but they got virtually nothing off of the oldest play in basketball against the Celtics. I think that's a testament to both the rotations, showing Thibodeau's influence, and the personnel.
Let's start with the players. There may not be another big man in the league who defends the high pick-and-roll better than Garnett, whose combination of length and agility allows him to show and recover to his man or switch onto a guard if necessary. Perkins isn't quite as effective, but he can step out on the perimeter as well. Backup Glen "Big Baby" Davis is surprisingly agile for his size. Boston's guards also did a fine job of getting back to the ballhandler quickly.
Even the best execution of showing against the pick-and-roll can still leave the defense vulnerable to the screener diving to the basket if the rotations at the back of the defense are not crisp. The Celtics did a fine job here against the Wizards. The best example came when Darius Songaila picked for Roger Mason in the second quarter. (Granted, Stockton and Malone this was not.) Davis showed while House got through the pick and back to Mason. Both defenders on the weak side of the court, Posey and Brian Scalabrine, cheated off their men to prevent the pass to Songaila, but not so much as to leave their own players open. Mason had no choice but to force a pass to Nick Young on the perimeter, and Posey was back in plenty of time. The pick-and-roll created no shot and accomplished no mismatch, only taking time off the clock.
I saw the Celtics go under the pick-and-roll against Dwyane Wade in the matchup with Miami, but they generally seem to prefer to show and rarely trap or switch.
Helping Without Overhelping
Help defense and rotations are the keys to a strong defense, and the Celtics are no exception. As noted by the first scout, they do a good job of crowding the paint when their first line of defense breaks down. This starts with Garnett, an exceptional help defender whose length is a daunting obstacle. What impressed me as much as when Boston did help, however, was when they didn't. Overhelping can be as bad for a defense as failing to help, leaving them vulnerable to layups, three-pointers and second-chance points. The Celtics were occasionally victimized on the offensive glass (Washington's 20 offensive rebounds helped keep them in the game), but gave up few easy looks off of their help.
Generally, the Celtics were content to let Haywood and Antawn Jamison work one-on-one against Garnett and Perkins in the post. My perception has always been that defending one-on-one is a weakness for Garnett, but he shut down Jamison. Perkins did a good job on the smaller Jamison. Against Haywood, the outcome depended on whether Perkins, giving up a couple of inches of height, did his work early. When Haywood established good position early, he was able to score with a mini-hook; otherwise, Perkins proved immovable.
There is good help awareness among the perimeter defenders. Celtics perimeter players are in position to help and still able to recover and contest an outside shot, which along with the refusal to overhelp explains why Boston is far and away the league leader in opponent three-point percentage. Celtics opponents have hit just 30.4% of their attempts from downtown; nobody else in the league is allowing less than 32.9%.
One explanation for Boston's dominant defense that I'm not entirely ready to accept is the inspirational factor of Garnett's all-out style of play, which apparently failed to do much for his teammates in Minnesota the last three seasons. However, I do agree with the sentiment that Paul Pierce is playing the best defense of his career. He's always had that kind of ability when motivated, and in this game he did an excellent job in a tough matchup with Caron Butler.
I tracked contested shots, and Pierce, with 13.5, had more than any other Celtics player. Butler shot 5-of-17 from the field, missed all six of his three-point attempts and had six turnovers with Pierce defending him the vast majority of the night. One of his best plays came when Butler inbounded the ball and then tried to rub Pierce off of a screen headed for the left wing. Pierce went around and used his athleticism to fly in and block the shot from the side. After, the two exchanged words and the matchup became heated. A motivated Butler hit three tough shots in a row, but Pierce stood his ground and forced Butler into some bad looks.
Unfortunately, Pierce made the key mistake of the night, fouling DeShawn Stevenson late in the game as Stevenson attempted a three with the Wizards up one. If there is a weakness of the Celtics defense, it might be their aggressiveness contesting shots. The quintessential example, of course, is Tony Allen's foul on Chauncey Billups late in the loss to Detroit in December. That's nothing new for Allen, a physical defender who averages five fouls per 40 minutes.
I'm not a huge fan of Boston Head Coach Doc Rivers' belief in using Tony Allen as a defensive sub at point guard in close games. He's better and bigger than Rondo, but the upgrade is not worth the problems on offense that come when Rivers is unable to get Rondo back into the game. Using Posey at power forward and Garnett at center, as the Celtics did down the stretch against Washington, is a much clearer call. That lineup allows Boston to switch almost any pick.
While nobody predicted the Celtics' emergence as an elite defensive team, the analysis of the defense has generally been fair and accurate. Garnett and Thibodeau have gotten the credit they deserve. The former is a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year and the latter is bound to be taken seriously when head-coaching positions open up at season's end. Boston's defense may not be spectacular in style, but its results certainly are.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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