Sign of weakness: pick and roll defense

Roberto Serra/Iguana Press - Getty Images

With its rebuilt, revamped, and retooled roster, the Celtics have shown a variety and versatility on the offensive end that we haven't seen in the last five years. However, it's also uncommon to see Boston struggling on defense, specifically on pick and rolls.

Admittedly, I didn't get a chance to watch the game last night, but I did see the preseason opener in Istanbul and the blowout in Milan. I'm as excited as the next Celtics fan about the offensive possibilities at Doc's disposal this season, but in both games, it was a little disconcerting to see how easily teams were scoring on us. This is the Boston Celtics, who have had the best defense in the league over the last five years.

We can qualify their poor defensive performances to a more European brand of basketball and training camp growing pains, but we haven't heard a lot about how the team is gelling on D and more importantly, seeing it on the court. Last night in Hartford was our first taste of NBA competition with the new roster and it sounds like the team still hasn't picked up the defensive rotations.

I'm not questioning Marc D'Amico's journalistic integrity, but it's rare for the beat man of Celtics.com to highlight a deficiency in the team's game. In his recap of yesterday's overtime loss to the Knicks, he pointed out:

The Knicks opted to go with the "if it's not broken, don't fix it" mentality when overtime began. They continued to run the pick-and-roll and they continued to see positive results. Copeland scored another eight points in overtime, almost all of which came off of pick-and-rolls, to lead the Knicks to victory.

To the naked eye, it may have looked as if Boston's big men were the ones who were continually beat on the play. However, Doc Rivers saw it very differently.

"Our bigs were fine. It was more the guards," said Rivers. "The bigs were scoring on their team from the rolls. That has nothing to do with the big on the ball; that was our weak-side defense with our guards."

It's also a theme that Ben Watanabe of NESN.com picked up on, too:

Few big men are as explosive out of the pick-and-roll as Chandler. Whether paired with Raymond Felton or another Knicks point guard, Chandler turned screen after screen into lob dunk after lob dunk in racking up 16 points in less than 26 minutes of playing time. He even turned non-pick-and-roll plays into easy baskets or trips to the foul line during the preseason matchup in Hartford, Conn. In so doing, Chandler single-handedly revealed the challenges the Celtics will face if they choose to run with Jared Sullinger or another undersized player at center.

No matter what Shaquille O'Neal may say, being a "pick-and-roll player" is not a bad thing. Running the pick-and-roll actually can be tougher for a big man, since there are so many steps. He first needs to set a legal screen, then read both defenders to decide whether to roll to the hoop, pop out for a jumper or rescreen if the dribbler does not find a dribbling or passing lane. Considering all those steps, simply catching the ball on the block and bulling one's way to the hoop is a lot less complicated.

That is why Dwight Howard could pose all sorts of problems for the Celtics or any other opponent this season, provided Kobe Bryant lets Mike Brown allow Steve Nash to lead the offense. (Yeah, we said it.) Chandler is a great finisher out of the pick-and-roll, but Howard is outstanding. Throwing a 6-foot-9 power forward like Sullinger or a relatively immobile 7-footer like Darko Milicic at Howard could be bad news for the Celtics, who plan to have to worry about these things in the Finals.

Again, I didn't get to see the game, but I do remember seeing us get scorched by lightning quick Fenerbahce point guard Bo McCalebb. In his case, we wasn't lobbing it to a rolling big, opting instead to use his speed around the pick to attack the basket to the tune of 21 points and eight free throw attempts.

This is an issue, right?

The alarmist in me is a little worried. This season has the potential to be special, but it doesn't seem like the team has fully embraced the spirit of what made them great over the last half decade. The Celtics have always been stingy and gritty on defense, but that intensity hasn't been there yet. Sure, most of the damage last night was done after the team emptied the bench, but there are key contributors that are still behind the curve. I've liked what I've seen out of Darko defensively, but he didn't get a lot of run last night. He sat out the entire second half as New York went small ball. A few days ago, I wondered how Doc would approach different lineups: would he try and match up man-for-man or counter with either a bigger or smaller lineup? Last night, he chose to match up against a team without Amare Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace.

Sullinger has been a revelation with his rebounding, but can he be a reliable defender? I'm tired of the comparisons to Big Baby, but the one page I want Sullinger to tear out of Davis' book was his mastery of the defensive rotations and drawing charges. He seems to have a willingness to do that, but the footwork hasn't caught up with his desire yet. We've also seen glimpses of Jason Collins and his six fouls, but Chris Wilcox has yet to see playing time in an actual game.

Look past Green's highlight dunks and Rajon Rondo's confidence with his jumper and at the free throw line. Anybody else sweating it a little?

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