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Good defense, better offense

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Brooklyn’s scoring machine was too much for an improving Celtics defense.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Someone call Homeland. The amount of weapons stored within Barclays Center is a threat to national security. No singular city should control this many nuclear missiles. Of course, we’re speaking metaphorically here, but by golly, the Nets simply have too much firepower to make it a fair fight.

“Credit to all those different guys who made big shots for them. That’s one of the reasons why I think they’re so unique. They’re one of the best shooting teams that have ever been assembled.” - Brad Stevens on the Brooklyn Nets

Despite Boston having one of their better defensive efforts of the season against Brooklyn, they were unable to close out the plethora of scorers down the stretch. If Boston sagged, they would pull-up. Push up instead and you’re getting beat off the dribble before giving up a foul or allowing a kick out. Rotate, and there’s a shooter curling off a screen just waiting to punish you. What are you meant to do?

“You have to mix it up. You’re not going to beat these guys guarding them one way. They’re just too good, and they can make the right read too often. You just got to do your best to keep them off balance.” - Brad Stevens

In fairness to the Celtics, their defense structure in this game was solid. Clogging passing lanes, rotating off the weak side, pressuring the perimeter - the Celtics were doing it all, and at quite a high level, too. Unfortunately, when a team has the scoring depth of Brooklyn, the slightest misstep will get punished.

The above play is a small crack in Boston’s defensive armor: nothing sinister, but enough of a blip to get punished. The first point of emphasis is Kyrie Irving’s cut middle, which drags Jaylen Brown out off the perimeter and generates the required space for a pick-and-roll action to take place.

As Joe Harris comes off the DeAndre Jordan screen, Kemba Walker eats the contact and no longer pursues the play. Now Tristan Thompson is effectively in a two-on-one situation, and he chooses to drop. Generally, playing drop against a roll threat such as Jordan is a smart move, but the ball handler is currently the leading three-point shooter in the league.

With Brown situated around the basket, the Celtics now have three guys across the low help line, meaning Thompson can afford to play up to touch on Harris until Walker re-enters the play. By trusting the help defense to pick-up any roll from Jordan, Thompson could have contested or deterred the shot from Harris, rather than leaving him in oceans of space to take a practice shot.

Here’s an example of good defense falling victim to better offense. There’s not much you can do when shots like these are dropping. Landry Shamet curls off a Nicolas Claxton pin down, receiving the ball on the perimeter (while still moving a full speed).

Tatum has done a fantastic job at staying connected with Shamet. No matter, though, as Shamet turns into his shot and immediately rises in motion, despite Smart digging and Tatum furiously closing out. Money. You have to live with those shots. The problem is, against Brooklyn, five or six different guys can hit them with consistency.

The Nets ended the contest with four players shooting 50% or greater on three or more shots. In contrast, only Smart (3-of-5) mirrored that success rate for the Celtics. Furthermore, a glance at the box score tells a story of a thousand words: no Nets player took above ten three-point attempts. They attacked by committee and got rewarded for it. Boston, however, had Brown attempt 12 threes in a game where he was ice cold.

In total, Brooklyn attempted 42 threes, making 19 of them. Of those 19 makes, 11 were what I would consider tightly contested (by either a hard close-out, hand in their face, or in traffic). That means only 42.1% of Brooklyn’s threes came uncontested, which may sound like a lot, but it’s pretty reasonable when you consider the scoring gravity within their roster.

When you can use Kyrie Irving as the trailer, you know you have an embarrassment of riches at your disposal. James Harden is bringing the ball up court, which of course means the Celtics have to lock in on him - he is one of the greatest scorers in the league. Between Smart, a dropping Daniel Theis, and a rather laid-back Tatum, they seem to have Harden under control.

Then Irving appears on the opposite wing, with no defender in sight. A simple pass from Harden results in a defensive scramble from Boston and easy money for Irving.

Open shots like these are what happen when you have two of the best ten guards in the league on the floor together, and it only gets worse when Brooklyn’s talisman Kevin Durant is out there, too.

Despite the Celtics equaling an NBA record in threes allowed, it’s hard to discount their defensive effort in this contest.

The common theme this season has been that Boston’s defense has been a large part of their struggles, so despite the loss, their defensive performance across all three levels should be encouraging if they sustain that level of play.

Luckily, no other team boasts this amount of WMD’s in their arsenal, and Smart’s minutes restriction will soon be a thing of the past. After watching the Celtics limp to losses during the first half of the season, a well-fought loss is much easier to stomach. They need to tighten up some of their defensive decision-making and communication, and then there should be no reason for them not to climb into the top-10 of defensive teams.