After watching his defense make the 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks look like the 2006-07 Phoenix Suns in a 99-88 home-opening loss, Boston Celtics center Kevin Garnett wasn’t feeling so good. And in his typically unsubtle method of communication, he let his team know:
“Since I’ve been here we’ve built a code on which this great organization has been built on, And that’s been not any individual, but team. And I just spoke about that and this group—and let the new guys know what it means to be a ‘C,’ and let them understand the severity of putting this jersey on and everything that comes with it and I just went into that.”
For championship-contending teams, the regular season is best utilized as a time to incorporate new pieces and finely tune those who are already familiar with the system. For a team that’s long taken pride in humiliating opposing offenses with layered rim protection, the Celtics will spend their first 82 games tightening up defensive rotations and acclimating old players with new ones.
If the playoffs are “eating a hot dog,” think of the regular season as “taking a behind the scenes tour of the hot dog factory.” The process is not pretty, but the end result usually looks more or less like a consumable product. In the first three games, however, Boston’s defense is playing far worse than anyone could have foreseen.
It's an incredibly small sample size, but right now, Boston ranks as the 26th defense in the league, and their aging anchor has had an even greater impact than a Celtics fan should hope for. So far this season, Garnett has played 86 minutes.
When he’s on the floor, Boston’s defense tightens, giving up 98.5 points per 100 possessions. With Garnett on the bench, the system effectively crumbles. The Celtics are giving up 115.7 points per 100 possessions when Garnett isn’t serving as the defensive lynch pin he’s paid to be, and his communication is sorely missed.
Here are three examples of why Boston’s overall defense has performed so poorly and why each problem is correctable in the weeks and months ahead.
For a rookie who’s yet to log anything close to substantial playing time, Jared Sullinger is actually rotating pretty well on the back line. Against Milwaukee, he took more than a few charges, showing no hesitation when it came to landing on his tender backside.
Because of that selfless fearlessness—combined with his size and shape—the people of Boston may begin to view Sullinger as Glen Davis 2.0. But before that can happen, he’ll have to improve other levels of play. Judging from his performance on Friday night, we’ll call his pick-and-roll defense a work in progress.
Instead of positioning his body on the opposite side of the screen to help contain a left-handed Jennings from going left and turning the corner, Sullinger sags off on the wing. This isn’t a terrible plan if the screener was a pick-and-pop threat, but in this case, it’s Larry Sanders, who averaged 0.9 jumpers between 10-23 feet per game last season.
Where Sullinger should be is about five feet to his right at the top of the key. He’s slow of foot, making the situation Milwaukee’s advantage anyway, but at the very least, he could’ve slowed down Jennings’ penetration, preventing him from entering the heart of Boston’s defense before back-line defenders were ready to rotate over.
Along with poor technique came a lack of the familiar intensity Celtics fans have grown accustomed to. Despite entering the season with a renovated sense of self-awareness, Rajon Rondo has, so far, taken more plays off defensively than one would expect of a quality leader.
In the play below, after falling down in an attempt to grab an offensive rebound on Jeff Green’s shot, Rondo realizes that with Jennings already dribbling up the right side of the court, the Celtics need to briefly cross-match while transitioning to defense. He motions for someone to cover his man, then jogs back on defense, presumably to pick up Milwaukee’s other guard, Monta Ellis.
As he’s going half speed, Ellis—one of the fastest players in the league—blows up the left side and into the lane, making himself wide open for a transition dunk that could easily have been prevented had Rondo simply hustled back. (One could argue that Rondo was creeping purposefully on this play, waiting to snatch a possible pass from Jennings to a trailing Ersan Ilyasova. But even if miscalculated gambling was the grand scheme of his lackadaisical effort, either way it's the opposite of solid defensive.)
Here’s a sequence of screen shots showing a serious mental lapse by Brandon Bass.
After knocking back an entry pass from Jennings that was intended for Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova, Bass decides to go after the ball even though it bounces right back into the passer's hands.
Jennings and Ilyasova respond by doing what any smart teammates would in this situation. The big man slips away from the half-hearted double-team, and the point guard drops him a simple bounce pass.
To magnify Bass’ bone-headed play, Ilyasova just so happens to be one of the best three-point shooters in the league. The Bucks forward catches the ball wide-open on the wing, and with Paul Pierce forced to stay at home on his man—who would be left alone under the basket for an easy dump pass and layup—the Celtics give Milwaukee a three-point gift.
This play is probably an anomaly. Bass isn’t the best defender in the world, but that doesn’t mean he lacks a brain. He knows being overly aggressive isn’t the right play in a Garnett-anchored defense, and I’d be surprised to see it happen again.
Just as other elite teams around the league are struggling to grow comfortable with one another so will the Celtics. They have several new additions to incorporate into the defense, and judging by their last five years of historically great play on that end of the court, there's no reason to think Boston won't figure things out before it's too late.