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Celtics own Pistons and best defense in the NBA

Detroit was undefeated until it faced a suffocating Boston defense.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

After last night’s 108-105 back-to-back, home-and-home win against the Pistons, the Celtics are 5-2 with the league’s third worst offense (100.8 OffRtg). Last week, fans, readers, and writers alike were concerned with Boston’s shot selection and wrung their hands over slow starts from just about every starter. With such a talented group of players, putting the ball in the basket was supposed to be the easy side of the ball.

The defense, on the other hand, could have seen some growing pains. Getting players up to speed on schemes--particularly switching assignments--can be confusing at first and could take weeks if not months to nail down. Surprisingly, that hasn’t been an issue. The Celtics have by far the stingiest defense to date (96.2 DefRtg). That’s nearly seven points per 100 possessions lower than last year’s 103.1 pace. They’ve done it in large part due to their 3-point defense (first in the NBA at 27.4% opponent 3FG%) and limiting their opponent’s free throws (fifth at 21.6 FTA’s per game).

Detroit’s final point tally was saved by three desperation triples in the final thirty seconds of the game. Otherwise, what looked like a close game in the box score was really another solid defensive effort against a team that poses a few mismatches because of their size advantages with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin.

If you look at the Pistons’ shot chart over the last two games, you can see they’ve adopted the modern NBA’s 3’s-or-dunks, analytical approach to offense:

via NBA Stats

They pound the inside with their two All-Stars and let it fly from beyond the arc (even though they’re not great outside shooters). To be an imposing defense, you have to not only force the opposing team to take bad shots (i.e. long-2’s), but also effectively challenge the shots they want to take.

There are some basic tenets to Boston’s defensive schemes. First, they almost never double team in the post, even if you’re Andre Drummond’s size:

Detroit is first in the Eastern Conference in post-ups at 15.4 per game; that’s more than Joel Embiid and the 76ers at 13.8. But here’s the thing: they’re only averaging 0.79 points per possession. That’s 8th worst in the league. By comparison, Boston is 4th worst at 0.65. The Celtics will happily let opposing teams ISO on the block.

Second, Keith talked extensively about Boston’s 3-point defense over the years and how they’ll jump out at shooters instead of trying to close out and box out hard. Even with their length, the Celtics aren’t trying to necessarily block the shot, but instead, break up their rhythm and timing. So far this year, Boston is first in opponent’s 3FG% at 27.4%. Over two games, they held the Pistons to 15-of-67.

And finally, in their PnR and drive defense, they’re trying to force ball handlers to the baseline to take away straight line runs to the rim. That scheme was perfectly illustrated by Jaylen Brown’s defense on Griffin over the last two games. Brad Stevens opted to put the quicker defender rather than the longer player in Jayson Tatum or stronger player in Gordon Hayward on Griffin to neutralize his face up game and bull rush mentality. Brown got muscled a few times on spin moves and elbows to the chest, but for the most part, Griffin’s perimeter attack was smothered.

Tomorrow, the Celtics will face their defensive equal in the undefeated Milwaukee Bucks. However, early in the year, the biggest difference between the two teams has been their offenses. Boston will look to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks who have put up 120+ points four times this season, twice on East rivals Toronto and Philadelphia.

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