For all the hand wringing about losing Robert Williams for the start of the year and finding a backup big man to replace him, the Celtics have continued their stinginess in two key areas: rim protection and contesting at the three-point line. Their defensive rating (113.7) is nowhere near where it was in the second half of last year (105.2 after the turn of the new year), but you can see the framework coming into view.
During their remarkable turnaround last season, the Celtics gave up the fourth fewest threes per game (11.3) on the second lowest 3FG% in the league (33.1); through nine games this year, they’re ninth in opponent’s three-pointers made (11.4 per game), but just 21st in opponent’s 3FG% (36.5).
They’ve been snake bit in a few of their losses. In their first loss of the season in Chicago, the Bulls shot a blistering 10-for-21 from behind the arc. Four nights later at the Garden, the Cavaliers hit 16 of 35 in an overtime win. You’ll get nights like those in an 82-game regular season, but for the most part, Boston’s switching defense has been able to pressure teams on the perimeter. To wit, Boston gives up the second fewest open threes (defender 4-6 feet from shooter) in the league.
It’s meant bigs contesting threes, smalls dropping down to muscle opposing forwards and centers, and cutting off all penetration. Without the shot blocking presence of Time Lord, that’s been key. The Celtics are giving up the second fewest makes in the restricted area (14.6) in the league so far.
The defense remains a work in progress and probably won’t really take shape until Williams’ return which still remains in the 8-to-12 week timetable. For now, the team has been reaping the benefits of their offensive explosion.
“We’ve started as a much better offensive team this season than we did last season,” Tatum said after the Celtics hit a new team record twenty-seven threes in Madison Square Garden Saturday night. “We’re just trying to get our defense to match and obviously, Rob is a big part of that. Not having him there presents some challenges that we gotta figure out on a nightly basis.”
Williams obviously puts a lot of pressure on the rim as a lob threat and he’s a very willing passer in the half court, but for now, his absence has pushed the offense more to the perimeter. The handful of alley-oops and putbacks that Williams will contribute in his return have turned into a few more shots from beyond the arc.
With nearly ten games under their belt, Boston has been lights out from three. They’re second in attempts (40.7) and third in 3FG% (39.3%). Tatum, who has traditionally slumped early in the year, is converting 38.3% of his nine three-pointers a night. After shooting a career-worst last season, Derrick White is hitting a career-high 41.9% in 2022-2023. Grant Williams and Sam Hauser — SAM HAUSER! — are a combined 31-of-57.
Boston’s hot shooting offers a curious look through the looking glass. If Williams was healthy (and for that matter, Danilo Gallinari), would Sam Hauser have entered the rotation? Would White have found his shot as more of playmaker with the second unit rather than a catch-and-shoot shooter with the starters? Would Luke Kornet, the most perimeter-oriented big man between him, Blake Griffin, and Noah Vonleh, joined Kornet as a role player? Would Ime Udoka have coached this team differently than Joe Mazzulla given the same circumstances?
“It’s tough, but I think it adds value to us down the line, trying to figure out how to play the game in different ways, trying to figure out how to read the game in different ways,” Brown said after the team shot 31 three-pointers against the Bulls on Friday night and then a whopping 51 vs. the Knicks the following night.
Over the next several games, Boston will face some of the league’s best offensive teams: Memphis on Monday (114.8 OffRtg), Denver on Friday (115.3 OffRtg), and Atlanta (113.2 OffRtg) and New Orleans (114.2 OffRtg) next week. Those games could turn into shootouts or, maybe more preferably, the Celtics get back into the lab at The Auerbach Center and start locking down their championship-level defense.