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The Boston Celtics: Where Has the Defense Gone?

November 20th, 2012 at 12:59 PM
By Will Clark

According to NBA.com statistics the Boston Celtics are not one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. In fact they aren't even one of the better ones. Eleven games into the season Boston is allowing opponents to score an average of 98.09 points per game, good for 18th best in the league. This statistic is frankly unheard of in the Kevin Garnett era. Since KG came to Boston the Celtics have always always been one of the hardest teams in the game to score against. Last year they finished second to the Chicago Bulls in opponents scoring. This year they aren't even in the middle of the pack, leaving Celtics fans to wonder what is going on.

In 2012 an opponent scoring over 100 points on the Celtics was almost unheard of. It only happened eight times in the shortened 66 game season.  Through 11 games in 2012-2013 Boston has already let four teams hit triple digits.  In fact the only teams they have held under 90 were the lowly Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors. Everyone is excited about Boston's offensive potential this year, and the bench depth that Boston now boasts thanks to an active offseason has already had a positive impact despite an uneven start. However, even while rejoicing about stealing Jason Terry from the Dallas Mavericks and Courtney Lee from the Houston Rockets, fans always assumed that Boston would remain a defense first team. This has not been the case through 11 games causing many, this writer included, to worry and wonder why Boston's defense has suddenly disappeared.

It's actually very difficult to explain why Boston has gone from an elite defensive squad to one that is average at best. The bench has been overhauled but the starters, with the exception of Avery Bradley who is still recovering from double shoulder surgery, are the same group that would completely throttle opponents last season. Kevin Garnett is still defending at a high level. Rajon Rondo is not what you would call a shut down defender, but is one of the better ball hawks in the league and forces turnovers at a high rate. Paul Pierce is his same old self – not a dominant defender, but very good both individually and from a team standpoint. Brandon Bass is also unchanged from last year – a very strong individual defender who still occasionally struggles with team concepts, particularly defending the pick and roll. Jason Terry meanwhile, the man holding Bradley's place, has also done a decent job. He isn't half the defender that Bradley is, but he isn't bad. All these problems existed last year, yet last year Boston was a great defensive team. This year they aren't even good.

Now there is some reason for this and all is not lost for the Celtics' defense. To start with one must remember that it is early. Defense much more than offense depends on chemistry. On offense a team can get by with two players moving together. On defense all five have to be on the same page. The Celtics should get there, particularly with Garnett and Doc Rivers constantly preaching D to the masses as they are wont to do. In addition Bradley's return will have an immediate impact. He is not only the best perimeter defender on the team he is one of the very best in the entire league. He is the kind of player who wrecks entire possessions all by himself. His ball pressure disrupts an opponent's entire offense. Terry has done his best but he isn't Bradley, at least not from a defensive standpoint. It should also be noted that Bradley isn't the only defensive standout from 2012 no longer with the team. Say what you want about Mickael Pietrus' offense but last season his defense was top notch and his ability to come off the bench and guard a opponent's best player for prolonged stretches was hugely beneficial to the 2012 C's. Jeff Green is trying to do that for the 2012-2013 squad but results have been inconsistent. Sometimes his D is very good. Sometimes it isn't.

However the personnel changes are not the only reason for Boston's struggles so all hope is not lost. The truth of the matter is that the Celtics are going to be different this year. Last season they almost never got out in transition. They pounded it out in the half court. This approach limited possessions and made it hard for the opposition to even break 90 simply because they didn't get enough shots. The Celtics won games by limiting possessions and executing better than their opponents. This year they are trying to run a bit more. Their philosophy is still that of a half court, defense first team, but they are trying to mix in a little more fast breaking. After all they do have the best fast break point guard in the game in Rondo. However while the idea is good the execution has not been consistent through 11 games. So many times this year the Celtics have had an opportunity for momentum shifting plays on the break, but they have botched it and ended up giving up a transition bucket the other way. The execution should improve as the year goes on, and with the Celtics converting teams will have a harder time counter punching since it is much harder to run off of made baskets. As chemistry improves Boston will become harder to score against. Remember it wasn't until the All-Star break that the 2012 squad took off. It shouldn't take quite as long for the 2012-2013 Celtics.

There are numerous reasons for optimism. The Celtics have struggled on the defensive end this season that much is true, but it is also true that they aren't at full strength and are still learning to play together. One just has to hope that their identity hasn't changed. Offensive dry spells are going to happen. Anyone who watched the 2012 team knows that. Last year their defense kept them in games so that the offensive ice ages weren't fatal. This year that hasn't been the case. It should improve, but if it doesn't Boston is in trouble.

Tags: Basketball, Boston, Boston Celtics, NBA

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