Kyrie Irving is having the best defensive season of his life. He currently ranks second in the league in steals per game, eight in defensive win shares, seventh in individual defensive rating, and sixth in deflections per game. Despite his many impressive statistics, the Celtics are actually only 0.4 points stingier per 100 possessions, with Irving on the floor in non-garbage time minutes (per Cleaning the Glass).
Irving’s relatively modest impact on overall team performance is more of a reflection of how good Boston has been on defense as a whole, but the fact that Irving is making Boston’s defense better at all is worth celebrating. He’s never had that effect on a team at any point in his NBA career. In fact, when compared to fellow point guards, he’s never even ranked outside the bottom third of the league.
Irving was considered something of an irreparable defensive train wreck before joining the Celtics, and while an 11 game stretch isn’t enough time to erase six seasons worth of data, he certainly looks more effective than he did with the Cavs.
A lot of his turnaround just comes down to effort. Irving is engaged on the defensive end in a way that he very rarely was in Cleveland. He’s been pesky in his 1-on-1 play, and relatively focused as a help defender.
Irving still struggles at times. He’s beatable off the dribble, and remains a liability to die on screens both on and off the ball. The Celtics have done a great job of minimizing those weaknesses in becoming the league’s stingiest D.
Boston has been particularly mindful of Irving’s warts while defending the pick-and-roll, the game’s most used offensive action. Let’s take a look at some of the strategies they’re implementing.
Leveraging Favorable Matchups
The Celtics have been quick to slot Irving onto opponents’ least threatening perimeter players, regardless of size or role. This has been especially true when Irving shares the floor with Marcus Smart and/or Terry Rozier. It has the double effect of keeping Irving out of the pick-and-roll in the first place, and neutering the impact of falling asleep off ball.
Boston did this a ton against OKC, a team that employs perhaps the league’s coziest defensive hiding place in Andre Roberson. Look how Irving completely loses him on this possession.
This isn’t good defense from Irving, but the Celtics are no worse for wear because of it. Roberson is an extreme example, and Boston would get burned sooner or later if Irving consistently paid so little attention to him (he’s been better than this most of the time), but the point here is clear. The easiest way to minimize the impact of individual lapses on defense is to increase the likelihood of them benefiting an offense’s least effective player.
Hiding Irving isn’t a panacea. Some teams just have no real weak links (think Warriors), and the league’s elite will find a way to get Irving into the pick-and-roll no matter what. The Celtics know this, and they’ve got plenty of other strategies to fall back on.
Weak Side Switching
Boston has become fond of implementing weak side switches to counteract mismatches that Irving might encounter via switching in the direct pick-and-roll, swapping wings onto bigs that might otherwise punish him in the post.
When the Celtics run this type of scheme smoothly it works beautifully, but it adds another layer of complexity to what they’re trying to do defensively. Everyone on the floor needs to be communicating actively, or Boston runs the risk of leaving shooters open in favorable spots.
The Magic don’t take advantage of it, but Aaron Gordon, the league’s third ranked three-point shooter (percentage wise), is left wide open in the clip above. If that is the end result of attempting to hide a potential disadvantage, then something has gone wrong. To their credit, the Celtics have done a pretty seamless job of implementing this strategy. Mistakes like the preceding have been the exception, not the norm.
Quick Switch Backs
Boston can, and frequently does, bypass the intricacies of multi-player switches by switching Irving onto a big in the direct pick-and-roll, and then having him swap back onto his original man as soon as possible.
It allows for Irving to take his time in dealing with the initial screen, while eliminating, to a degree, the possibility of a postup mismatch later on in the possession.
This is an exceptionally common practice in the NBA, but it’s no less effective. It requires that the on-ball defender angle his man away from the direction of a screen, funneling him towards the sideline and a waiting help defender.
I haven’t watched enough of the Cleveland Cavaliers over the years to really say whether or not Irving was capable of icing a screen prior to coming to Boston, but he’s certainly figured it out well enough in his brief time with the Celtics.
Icing works for Irving, because it requires a level of aggressiveness that basically precludes the possibility of dying on a screen. That is to say, it only works if the screen is negated entirely, thus making the threat of it nonexistent.
The rest of the defense needs to be on a string after Irving fulfills his responsibility. That isn’t quite the case in the play above, but Boston’s roster is chock full of intelligent, rangy defenders. Smart money is on them getting this right more often than not. Al Horford deserves a ton of credit for how effectively he navigates plays like these.
Opposing offenses will study what the Celtics are doing defensively, which makes it critically important that Boston continue to mix and match the strategies outlined above. If they become overly reliant on a single approach, they run the risk of becoming predictable, and by extension, more easily exploited.
It’s worth noting that Boston had some success with Irving playing within it’s base defense, fighting through screens and recovering to his man. That isn’t his strength as a defender, but making an effort is important. The more the Celtics can use switches as a strategic weapon and not a default philosophy, the better their defense will function.
There are other, even more nuanced responses to the pick-and-roll that Boston could explore. David Thorpe gives a quick explanation of a style of jump switching that a number of international teams have begun implementing here (zoom ahead to the 26:00 minute mark or so).
Brad Stevens is undoubtedly aware of all of the possible options available to him, but for now there is no reason to change what the team is doing. He’s got Irving—formerly one of the league’s biggest defensive punching bags—functioning as a cog in what currently rates out as a historically great defense.