The Boston Celtics have a top-10 defense, one of the five best back-line defenders in the league, an elite on-ball defender and a slew of well-reputed veterans who understand the importance of stacking the strong side each and every time down the court.
They allow 100.4 points per 100 possessions (sixth best in the league), are league average in opponent three-point percentage and just slightly above league average in opponent field-goal percentage.
Going by the numbers, it would appear defense is the least of Boston's problems. But basketball isn't ALL about numbers, especially when they contradict themselves. Recently we've seen ugly, inconsistent play from the Celtics on defense, with their early season problems lingering far too long.
Where is Boston's defense struggling? Well, it allows 23.9 free-throw attempts per game—which is sixth-highest in the league—and opponents are shooting 60.2 percent in the restricted area, which is 19th in the league. Also, it's 21st in defending the corner three (an area most of the top defensive teams rank highly in).
Maybe the more important question is how can the Celtics turn their already firm ship into an air tight vacuum? With little to no offensive game to speak of for the fourth straight season, it's become apparent that 48 minutes of lockdown defense is what the Celtics are going to need moving forward if they want to compete with the Eastern Conference's elite.
According to Synergy, Boston is dead last in transition points, and one of the 10 worst teams in the league guarding pick-and-roll roll men, hand-off recipients, off-ball cuts and putbacks on offensive rebounds. (Overall, Synergy has them ranked as the eighth-best defense in the league.)
Here are Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger executing to perfection what's known around the league as a "communicative failure."
Guarding Tristan Thompson, Sullinger switches onto Shaun Livingston (Green's man) as he comes over a pin down screen set by Kyrie Irving. Instead of picking up Sullinger's man, Green sees little resistance on the pick and decides to come out on Livingston, resulting in an unnecessary, awkward double team and Thompson wide open on a roll to the basket.
Boston's overall defense is wonderful, but it's not perfect. There's always room for improvement, and correcting breakdowns like this one in the future shouldn't be too difficult.
The transition game is even more problematic, and so much easier to solve. Transition defense is one part hustle, two parts recognition. Running down to the other side of the court after a missed basket is obviously a necessity, but then recognizing who it is you're supposed to be guarding (or what space on the floor you're supposed to be covering) is even more important.
The Celtics do neither on a regular basis. Here are two examples from Tuesday night's loss to Cleveland.
Look at the picture below. There are four Celtics above the free-throw line when Alonzo Gee receives a pass in the corner. The only "explanation" for a lapse like this is that Boston's so worried about Kyrie Irving burning it again that it's willing to stack 80 percent of its team against him (and him alone), wherever he might be. In NBA reality, that's ridiculous. This play is inexplicable; it's basketball at a high school level.
The next sequence happens about a million times every season. A player, in this case Paul Pierce, misses an elbow jumper, and the opposition grabs a defensive rebound. What's different about this particular play is that three seconds after Cleveland grabs the board, its center, Tyler Zeller, finds himself dunking at the opposite end of the court.
Plays like this should never happen. Against the Celtics, they semi-regularly do.
In their last 10 games, the Celtics actually have the No. 1 defense in basketball. But being that a blatant discrepancy exists between those numbers and a winning outcome, it should be noted that they can, and should, be playing even better. (In their last four games—all losses—the Celtics have allowed 99.3 points per 100 possessions, which is good for 11th in the league.)
If Boston can clean up the multiple elementary mistakes it makes per game, it'll be that much better of a basketball team. Without anything resembling an offense, it won't be pretty, but the process of forcing opponents into a grueling half-court battle might be Boston's only shot at eventually becoming a competent basketball team.