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Shamrock Notes: An ode to Boston’s defense and the evolution of Kyrie Irving

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Celtics defense impresses, Kyrie Irving’s evolution, and Jayson Tatum hitting the rookie wall

NBA: Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics still are one of the NBA’s best teams despite being 9-6 in their last 15 games with the Toronto Raptors quietly sneaking a game behind them for the top seed in the East. The Celtics road trip has had some lukewarm results. The Lakers game was a tough loss, but the Clippers win and Warriors showdown left the team leaving California with more optimism. After tonights game against the Nuggets the team will face off against the Knicks, Hawks, and Trailblazers before big-time bouts with the Raptors, Wizards, Pacers, and Cavaliers before the all-star break. We’ll learn a lot more about the Celtics than we do now. But while we’re on the topic of now, let’s get into some of observations of recent trends:

The Celtics defense is legit

After an epic Celtics-Warriors game that saw peak Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving performances, the defense from the Celtics is something that I came away super impressed with. The team did give up 109 points including an efficient 49 points from Steph Curry, but outside of Curry, the Warriors shot 22-60 from the field (36%), while Durant and Thompson were held to 1-9 shooting from three. Despite the loss, the team did an awesome job maintaining consistent pressure and avoided the all too familar Warrior avalanches that have taken the spirits of many NBA athletes and coaching staffs. An indicator of how well the Celtics were able to take the Warriors out of their games was their inability to generate assists, the Warriors only registered 19 assists for which is 11 under their average of 30.

Kerr had a pretty simple explanation for this in his postgame presser:

“It was much more of an isolation-style game than we would like but that’s what they do. That’s why they are the best defensive team in the league.”

-Steve Kerr

Beyond the obvious praise of the Celtics defense, what Kerr was referring to was one of the key themes to the Celtics having the best defense in the league.

Boston was able to turn the Warriors into an iso-heavy team because of ability to switch, get back, and muck up their action by staying attached to their man.

Boston forces teams to play an inefficient game. You can score on the Celtics, but the looks are heavily isolation-based with your star player trying to make a play for himself with others in the background. The team played GSW competitively last year, but got blown out against CLE was because their game was already based on an iso-heavy system and they had the personnel (LBJ and Kyrie) to win their matchups against Boston’s defenders.

This year, via Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics are third in the league in limiting transition and corner three-point frequency, first in transition points allowed, first in defending the ball-handler in PnR situations, and have held teams in the 34.5 percentile in isolation possessions. Those are key components of elite offense in the NBA and the Celtics are some of the best at defending it. Without Hayward, this team is still a long way from being a true title contender, but the blueprint to defend some of the leagues best offenses is there.

Kyrie Irving transforming before our eyes

There’s been a lot of debate on whether Kyrie Irving has become a new and improved player in Boston or if he’s just the same guy in a different uniform. If the debate is only a matter of numbers, then you’ll be hard-pressed to find a key improvement offensively. What is apparent though is the process of his game is a lot more defined than in seasons passed. The best way to describe this is with a chart:

This chart is simple, but it highlights an important theme between Kyrie’s switch from Cleveland to Boston. As you can see, Kyrie still uses up isolations and PnR sets for his main diet which is why it’s easy at times to watch a game here or there and think you’re seeing a similar player. However, the biggest change is the diversity of his attack. Now instead of either using a pick, isolating, or standing and waiting in a corner, Irving is running more DHO’s, going through more screens, and cutting off-ball. Besides for those plays being more efficient than constantly trying to beat someone one on one, they all involve other teammates contributing to make it work which allows Kyrie to be Kyrie within the teams offense. Kevin Durant indirectly alluded to this when talking about the Irving-Curry duel:

“Kyrie got it going, got it cooking early and then Steph, you could tell was kind of back and forth. But, it wasn’t one of those back-and-forths where they kind of just hijacked the game, and just played one-on-one all within the floor.”

Irving may not appear to be a transformed player on its face, but it’s clear Boston has diversified his portfolio, and it’s allowed to Irving to be who he is while simultaneously involving his teammates and making them better.

Did I mention he was trying on defense too?

Tatum has officially hit the rookie wall

I held on to the dream that maybe the shooting woes were a product of dislocating his finger, but I think it’s time to face the reality that Tatum has hit the rookie wall at full force. In the last 15 games, Tatum has shot 31% from three and 42.5% from the field. Most of his three-point shots are still classified as open, but just from a visual perspective it seems that the teams are taking away the corner three’s and he hasn’t had the legs to hit three’s from the wing or top of the elbow. His saving grace during this rough patch has been his defense where he’s posting a 96.8 defensive rating and to his credit continued to compete on that end even when his shot has left him. The sky is obviously not falling, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Celtics bring in another veteran to take some of the minutes off of Tatum or ride with him and see if he can break out of the funk after all-star weekend.