If the Boston Celtics are serious about defense, the league will be in trouble.

This is one way to put into context how dominant the Boston Celtics have been scoring the ball. Not only are they the most efficient team the NBA has ever seen, but just before their 25th game against the Raptors began on Monday night, their offensive rating was 8.39 points per 100 possessions. up league average. The only team since 2000 that was more productive relative to its direct competition was the 2003-04 Mavericks.

Led by innovator Don Nelson, those Mavs were led by 25-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and 29-year-old Steve Nash. However, one atypical offense was not enough. Otherwise, Dallas was forgettable that season. The Mavs fell in the first round, with a poor defense that couldn’t defend anyone and somehow allowed a higher effective field goal percentage than they put up.

I don’t think the Celtics are going to have that problem. The story of his season so far is a storied offense. The juicy subplot, though, is just how balanced they can still be. After spending the first month of this season with a below-average defensive rating, the Celtics currently sit in ninth place. But the room they have left for defensive improvement is even scarier than the barrage of 3-pointers that rain down every night. They are fifth in the last 15 games, first against top 10 offenses and quality in transition.

Rediscovering that same unwavering identity that led them to a 2-1 lead in the finals last June, a 21-5 giant it may be on the verge of irreproachable supremacy. Ask the Suns. “The defense is slowly coming back,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said after his team’s most impressive defensive performance of the season in Brooklyn on Sunday. “And our guys are doing a great job running it.”

These Celtics haven’t needed a great defense to prevail. But things were a little different last season. After starting the 2021-22 season with a 25-25 record, they treated every defensive possession as if a bucket immediately resulted in a turnover. Those The Celtics were do or die, turning offensive teams into a turf battle for personal space. Nothing was given up without confrontation.

Boston had a great offense in the regular season, but the stops were oxygen. With all of their versatility, length, instincts, experience, and physicality, defense is their way of separating themselves from the pack. It was also an exhausting way to exist, especially if you’re someone like Marcus Smart, whose body will disintegrate if he exerts as much energy as his brain wants on each possession. Now, his ability to respond to any given basket with an immediate open 3 makes it easier to adopt a less hostile mindset. Onboarding new players and getting acquainted with your rookie head coach are real adjustments that also take time.

Offense was his biggest concern during the offseason. It is what his coaches and players noticed. How could they prevent the same finals collapse (and near-conference finals collapse) from happening again? With that problem seemingly resolved, it’s a good time to remember that they won’t be average on defense forever. A jump is brewing. One reason: Robert Williams III, a shot-blocking phenom whose return from knee surgery is imminent. He hasn’t played a second this season; that is not a minor absence. Last season, the Celtics allowed a stifling 0.84 points per play from half court on him. This season, they are 20th in half court defense.

If it weren’t for a torn meniscus in March, Williams would likely be the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, thanks in large part to how he turned floaters into volleyball shots. Life is harder when you’re not patrolling the paint. Last year, opponents hit just 35.6 percent of their short, midrange shots. That number easily led the league. Right now they are at 46 percent, which is the fourth worst.

Also, compared to last season, Boston allows opponents to try around two plus driving layups for every 100 possessions. Williams is a doubt maker if there ever was one. Opposing ball handlers no longer hesitate. Things like this don’t happen when he’s out there.

And then there are his replacements: Luke Kornet, Noah Vonleh and Blake Griffin. Boston’s defense with either of the bottom two has been abysmal. Kornet is solid (especially when it comes to his unorthodox closing technique) but… not Rob Williams.

Time Lord’s impact is undeniable, but he’s less of a savior than someone who grants permanent access to the NBA penthouse. His presence injects an aura of invincibility into what should already be an elite group. Even when he’s unavailable, this roster still has a host of strong, flexible, above-average individual defenders in a system that should generate a top-5 rating (which is what they have when Jayson Tatum is on the court). .

Nearly their entire rotation can be shortlisted for an all-defensive team: Tatum, Smart, Grant Williams, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon. (With so many strong ties, Sam Hauser routinely gets attacked on an island — he’s defended more isolates per 100 possessions than just about anyone else who’s logged at least 30 snaps, per second spectrum — but he’s held up well.) Until their most influential defender returns, there are several signs that this team is on track to finish much closer to where the Celtics finished last season than they currently are.

Boston’s quantified opponent shot quality (a metric that weights the 3-adjusted probability that an average shooter will make the shot) was 50.75 percent, best in the league in 2021-22. This season, it’s 50.68, which trails only the Bucks and is one of the main reasons Mazzulla generally likes what he sees. When I recently asked him if there was any difference in Boston’s mentality compared to last season, Mazzulla tossed out a detailed list of basic and advanced stats in an upbeat response about the trajectory his group is on, from its rising strike rate. defensive rebounds to how they are. they’ve done a better job of keeping their hands active and generating turnovers (although they still rank last in that department).

“There is not a difference between here and last year,” he said. “Except we don’t have Rob.” The Celtics are forcing the shots they want, nearly doubling the opponent’s shooting frequencies posted last season. They’re good at taking 3s off the rim and corners while coaxing a heavier diet of midrange jumpers than any other defense. If they continue like this, simple math will push them to a higher level.

And your business card is still your business card. “Our schemes, you know, for the most part remain the same,” Mazzulla said. They are changing screens on and off the ball at a slightly higher frequency than last season. (Only the Nets do it more often.) One of the biggest reasons is that it induces players who have nothing to do one on one, vaporizing the flow and movement of the ball. The Celtics allow just 21.7 assists per 100 possessions, second only to Milwaukee.

“Execution of the game plan. Defensive discipline. Details to trends. Active hands,” Mazzulla said. “I thought our guys…play hard all the time.”

It sounds absurd to look at anything the Celtics have done and then call them a sleeping giant. But as ridiculously efficient as their offense has been, the steady progress they make on the season on the other end may eventually be the main reason they’re considered an all-time powerhouse.

It is his defense that cannot be overlooked. It’s their defense that keeps them going every game and completely derails opposing strategies. It is your defense that can take you where you want to go. A cement foundation. And at the end of the day, nothing scares every other contender more than the Celtics getting back to the level they discovered on that side of the ball during the second half of last season. The rest of the league may need to prepare again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *