They don't look like a tough defensive team, right? Sure, they've got Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder on the perimeter, but they don't have an intimidating rim protector and they're too athletic in the back court. And yet, Boston boasts the 4th best defensive in terms of defensive rating at 94.4 and without Smart and Bradley (for the second half), the Celtics showed just how strong their defense is against a Bucks team that should be physically dominant in a 99-83 rout.
Lots of good stuff here in MassLive's Jay King's review of the D, particularly this quote from Brad Stevens:
"How (the defense has) performed is fine," he said this weekend. "But you have to choose to be good at that. You have to choose to be good at that as a group. That's not something you can turn on and off. You have to have a mindset about that. And the minute we exalt ourselves in that regard we could be awful on Tuesday and Wednesday. So just keep guarding. Keep doing the best that we can do. And keep playing together. We're playing our system pretty well and using our athleticism so far."
The Celtics' defensive scheme is fairly straightforward and has some basic tenets. First of all, the defense is heavily reliant on that trio of pit bulls on the perimeter: Smart, Bradley, and Crowder (and in the future, Terry Rozier). They're like rodeo clowns constantly directing the charging bull in a direction it doesn't want to go like ICEing most picks to the sideline.
Those wing defenders are also never alone. There's always help lurking from a big whether it's on a pick-and-roll, an isolation, or a cut. Check out Jared Sullinger shadowing the guard interplay between John Wall and Bradley Beal.
He's still got his eye on his main cover, Marcin Gortat, but his secondary job is to help on penetration. As soon as Wall gets in the paint, Sully is there. Note that Sullinger doesn't close out very hard. He wants to give Wall that low percentage floater; if the help is too close, he's apt to foul or allow the drive by and if it's too far away, Wall could get a full head of steam and get to the rim.
Second, on the block, Boston employs a similar team strategy where players are never guarding their man alone. If opposing teams post up on the block, individual defenders are trying to keep them from turning into the paint and forcing them baseline. That cuts down the shooting angle and eliminates passing lanes.
Here's Kelly Olynyk keeping a square base on Boris Diaw's left shoulder and guiding him to spin right. Amir Johnson is there with the help and because he's under the rim, Diaw doesn't really have the space for a good shot or a pass to West.
And finally, there's the chipping from the guards. Boston is first in the league at generating turnovers with opposing teams coughing up the ball 20.3 times a game. They're very good at jumping passing lanes and punishing teams late in the shot clock when teams tend to ISO and/or the ball stops moving. They lead the league in steals, generating 11.7 per game with Jae Crowder leading the team and the NBA at 3.2.Here's what I mean about chipping. This is Smart in the opener against the 76ers. As soon as Nerlens Noel puts the ball on the floor, Smart shoots his hand at the dribble. The steal is nice (the Celtics are second in the league in points of turnovers at 24.2 per game), but even if Noel doesn't lose the ball, it disrupts the offense ever so slightly.
Let's check out how this all played out in Milwaukee. Here are two perfect examples of the Celtics bigs keeping a watchful eye on penetration:
Giannis Antetokounmpo might get a little too deep for comfort, but Sully makes it out of the restricted area and draws the charge.
Some really good stuff here from Kelly Olynyk. He's there on the initial probing penetration by Jerryd Bayless (anybody else kinda miss that guy?) and when the ball swings out, he's there to contest Damien Inglis and force the three-second call on John Henson.
Here's Sully again on the back side cover. He closes the lane on the initial Jerryd Bayless-Greg Monroe PnR, recovers and keeps Monroe from getting deep position on the block, and finally forces a tough Bayless fade away with Bradley getting a hand in his face.
Sullinger and Olynyk may not be the fleetest of foot (and neither are David Lee and Amir Johnson for that matter), but as long as they're in position, they don't need to be able to block a shot. Just being there has been enough. The Celtics are allowing the 4th fewest shots within six feet of the rim.
And here are some examples of chipping:
Monroe does a good job faking the dribble hand off to Tyler Ennis and driving to the lane, but Sullinger and the chipping Johnson are too quick on the recovery. Johnson bodies up Monroe on the penetration and the ball goes out of bounds for a turnover. Here's R.J. Hunter defending the pick-and-roll with multiple efforts. He gets his hand on the bounce pass to a rolling Monroe and also strips him when Monroe tries to spin back toward the cup.
There's a chance that Smart may be able to come back today against the Indiana Pacers but even if he doesn't, the Celtics are already embodying his doggedness on the defensive end. Adding him to the mix only adds yet another A+ defender to an A+ defensive team with a third of Boston's remaining November schedule coming against some of the league's best offensive teams (Oklahoma City, Atlanta twice, and Miami). We're a long ways away from talking about the playoffs, but if defense wins championships, this team is well on their way.