Earlier this week for CelticsBlog, I wrote on the vast improvements of the Celtics’ offense through ball movement and their desire to become a great extra-pass, re-penetration team. Their unselfishness, buy-in, and pure joy inside the bubble has been evident, and is one of the reasons the team has won four of their last five.
I’ve arguably been more impressed with their defense than anything. While guys like Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown earn their stripes as fantastic individual defenders, the embrace of crisp rotations and selfless help positioning has helped the Celtics stifle their last few opponents.
In a few key areas, this team has made major improvements and looked more trusting, more dialed in, and ready for a deep postseason run. As coaches like to constantly say, defense wins championships. Hopefully they can sustain success on this end to help raise another banner above the parquet.
Stuntin’ Is A Habit
How does a basketball player defend two guys at once?
The easy answer is to stand in the middle of the two guys and play cat-and-mouse, trying to cause a miscommunication between offensive players. But most times, a 1-on-2 situation is only for one or two seconds, simply buying time for someone else to get back into the play.
Most players will do what’s called a stunt at the ball to prevent the ball from rotating around the perimeter and slow the possession down. A great example of that is this play from Brad Wanamaker on Tuesday against the Grizzlies, where he stops the flow of the possession just by jumping up in the passing lane and towards the ball with a stunt:
Most stunts and movements are nothing big, but being in the right place at the right time have a cumulative effect on the defense. Wanamaker’s subtle movements, showing the savvy veteran value he provides, prevent buckets even though he’s not leaving his feet to challenge a shot.
Sometimes those stunts more tangibly impact a play and prevent a bucket. Watch Daniel Theis on this play below. He shows heavily to make up for his teammate getting screened and forces a wider pass–the difference between a layup and no shot at all:
The Celtics are fortunate to have many talented, lanky on-ball defenders. But only one guy can guard the ball at a time. Everyone has to be smart and aware of how to defend from a helper standpoint and not just be one-dimensional locking down the ball.
A Helping Hand
In some form, defense is a synonym for communication and trust. Five players moving, collaborating, anticipating, and executing as one is the goal. NBA players are really, really good and breakdowns happen. Playing effective, energized defense on the ball every possession isn’t realistic in such a demanding league.
However, when one player breaks down, the other four need to be there to help and compensate. If they effectively anticipate, move, and execute the coverage to buy their teammate time to get back in the play, the advantage at the point of attack can be negated.
Usually what triggers the need for help is an advantage gained through a ball screen or a quick drive against a poor closeout. As soon as that breakdown happens, the rest of the team needs to be on high alert to scramble around and plug the holes until they can all match up 5-on-5 again.
Watch here as the Celtics cover up a poor closeout from Jaylen. Grant Williams and Gordon Hayward both fly around to play 2-on-3, with perfect angles, until Kemba Walker flies in to attempt a charge:
Hayward’s initial stunt, to the side of Kyle Anderson as he hopes to discourage both a shot and a quick reversal, is what buys Williams time. Then, as always, the savvy veteran Kemba is there to clean things up.
Defense is a collective effort. If you don’t trust your teammates will be there to cover any mistakes you make, you stop taking risks. Defenders who are risk-averse are ones who don’t pressure the ball, who aren’t trying to disrupt anything and who stand back and are more scared of the drive than their man rising up to shoot. But nobody can play effective defense that way, making trust so important.
Conversely, if you take a risk and your teammates are there to cover things up, you’ll be more inclined to gamble once again and try to make something happen. NBA teams are far too good on offense to sit back and let them do what they want. Fortune favors the bold.
Good teams help on time, but great teams help proactively. There were a few examples of early help from the Celtics on Tuesday night, sometimes in moments the help wasn’t even needed.
Young Timelord Williams has made great strides in his reliability as a help defender of late. As other Celtics gamble aggressively and are involved in a miscommunication, Williams takes a few subtle steps towards the rim to discourage a layup and allow his teammates to recover:
It’s impossible to quantify this type of movement from Williams. His slide prevented a pass which would have resulted in a layup, and even though the Grizzlies scored, it’s always the right move to prevent something at the rim in favor of a perimeter jumper.
The little things matter.
Time(lord) for a 2-3
Speaking of Robert Williams, his minutes of late have been strong and fairly consistent. As a dunker and shot blocker in the middle, Williams provides the Celtics bench a spark and can be a very different interior presence than Enes Kanter.
If Williams comes into the regular postseason rotation, Brad Stevens may have found an effective way to utilize him. Since returning in the bubble, the C’s have experimented with a full-court zone press, a move designed to throw their opponents off-balance. Stevens has proven over the past few years willing to play some zones and change defenses in order to regain the upper hand.
Against second units who struggle to shoot, playing this and recovering into a 2-3 zone can be wildly effective. After the Grizzlies were colder than an Alaskan December in the first quarter, Stevens dusted off the zone pressure to dare those Grizzlies to launch from the outside and see if they could finally hit a shot.
With Williams in the middle, there’s an anchor who the perimeter defenders can funnel to and can take those aforementioned risks because of:
The key, though, is keeping Williams in the middle and not letting the offense quickly move the ball if he steps out to the perimeter. In the possession above, he and Brown were able to swap assignments once the ball was settled, allowing Williams to patrol the paint.
An aggressive offense that doesn’t stop the ball from moving can manipulate the pressure in a way that wouldn’t allow Williams to get back to his comfort zone. In the next play, you’ll see how Williams rotates to the corner but cannot find the opportunity to switch back with Brown, so the Grizzlies get a floater without fear of a shot blocker in their path:
Perhaps the biggest unknown from a rotation standpoint for the Celtics is what to do with the backup minutes at the 5. Much of it will depend on matchups and who they draw, but Williams’ emergence lately has given the team a dynamic option in addition to Kanter. For all the credit he’s getting for his efficient finishing and strong offensive output, the dependability of his help defense and the impact he’d make in the middle of a 2-3 zone may open the door for playing time moving forward.