November 27, 2007


Celtics' Strides on Defense Key to Their Dominance (JOHN HOLLINGER, November 27, 2007, NY Sun)

[T]he biggest surprise of all is the no. 1 ranked defensive team: the Boston Celtics. The key to their scorching-hot 11–1 start has been a shockingly good defensive effort. Boston allows only 92.9 points per 100 possessions, more than three points better than the second-place Nuggets. That would make them a fantastic team even with an average offense, but of course Boston's offense is well above average thanks to the star trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, ranking fifth in Offensive Efficiency.

Needless to say, Boston is crushing opponents on a nightly basis — with such dominance at both ends, why wouldn't they? Nobody doubted they could put together a potent offensive squad, but the defensive results are downright shocking. And they bear closer examination, because if the Celtics keep defending this way, it's hard to imagine them not winning the championship.

One way the Celtics excel is by limiting their opponents' shots. Boston is the fourth-best defensive rebounding team in the league, grabbing 76.5% of opponent misses. With a board beast like Garnett joining another strong rebounder in center Kendrick Perkins, this is perhaps not a huge surprise. A bigger surprise is the turnovers they're forcing — Boston opponents cough it up on 17.9% of opponent possessions — again, the fourth-best number in basketball.

As a result, Boston gives up fewer "shots" (defined as field-goal attempts or trips to the foul line) per opponent possession than any team in basketball. This alone saves them more than two points a game compared to the average team, a huge total over the course of the season. By the way, the Nets are a close second in this category, thanks to their league-best Defensive Rebound Rate.

So what's the difference between the Celtics and the Nets? Basically, Boston's opponents miss a lot more shots than New Jersey's. The Celtics are no. 1 with a bullet in field-goal percentage defense, with opponents converting only 40.9% from the floor. This is miles ahead of the next-best team (Los Angeles Lakers, 43.5%), accounting for the other big reason Boston is so far ahead of the pack in Defensive Efficiency.

It's also shocking, much more so than the rebound and turnover numbers. Boston doesn't strike anybody as a shutdown defensive club. While Garnett is a good defender, the Celtics don't have much other quality size inside, especially with Perkins in frequent foul trouble. On the wings, reserve James Posey is the closest thing they have to a defensive stopper, and his minutes are limited because Allen and Pierce are on the court so much. Allen is a notoriously poor defender, and Boston's bench brigade is generally lightly regarded at the defensive end too, especially reserve guard Eddie House.

But somehow, the whole vastly exceeds the sum of its parts so far. Some ascribe it to the teachings of new defensive assistant Tom Thibodeau — who was in Houston helping the Rockets rank no.2 in Defensive Efficiency last season. Some say it's the esprit de corps resulting from the excitement surrounding the rebuilt Celtics, or the impact of the ultra-intense Garnett on his teammates.

Here's a possibility we need to at least consider — that some of it might be luck. Field-goal percentage is a notoriously fluky statistic, especially when looking at small samples.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2007 12:02 AM

Move the Nuggets into the Eastern Conference and they'd be 11-1 too.

Posted by: Brandon at November 27, 2007 11:16 AM

With a loss to the C's.

Posted by: oj at November 27, 2007 11:31 AM