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First to the Floor: ranking the Celtics’ three best defenders

Behind a ridiculous defensive performance, the Celtics take their 5th in a row against the Nets.

Dallas Mavericks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

In this episode, Jake and I break down the Nets game and defend the defense. The Celtics started the year with some offensive levels of defense. It didn’t matter, until it did. Once December hit, and the shots stopped falling, things started to look bleak. But, when all else fails, the Cs got back to what brought them to The Finals last season. As NBC Boston’s Brian Scalabrine would say, “they started to guard their yard.”

Since December 1, the Celtics have the 3rd best defensive rating in the league, per And after that performance in Brooklyn, I don’t see them heading in the wrong direction anytime soon.

Because we aren’t particularly creative, we decided to discuss and then rank who the Celtics three best defensive players have been this year. I’ll be honest, I think the #1 and #2 spots were pretty obvious, but man I struggled with #3. Had Robert Williams played more games, he would have walked into the top-3, but since he hasn’t, we left him out of the conversation. So, without further ado, here are my top-3 defenders of the season so far.

NOTE: on the pod, I said Tatum was #3, but after looking at it more in-depth, I went with Dad Horford.

3. Al Horford

DRTG - 110.2
DFG% Diff. - -6.2
DRTG Diff. - +0.6

I think it’s fair to say Al Horford has taken a step back defensively this season. The upside is that he was at such an elite level last year, Al taking a step back still means he’s one of the better defenders in the league.

His mediocre DRTG and positive DRTG Diff. (team gives up .6 more points per 100 with him on the court) are functions of the early season defense. Since December 1, Al’s numbers wade into the absurd, 106.1 DRTG and the defense gives up 3.6 fewer points per 100 with Al out there.

Whether it’s playing picture perfect drop coverage against the pick and roll, providing back-line rim protection, or defending ISO’s, there’s not really anything Al does poorly on the defensive end. His DFG% numbers bear this out. Opponents shoot worse when Al is guarding them at every level, and an absolutely ridiculous 11.3% worse from 0-6 feet.

He may not be the match-up proof, all-world defender of seasons past, but he’s still incredibly impactful on that end.

2. Marcus Smart

DRTG - 110.9
DFG% Diff. - +1.1%
DRTG Diff. - +2.6

You probably have heard this, but Smart won Defensive Player of the Year last year. Smart has been good this year, but I don’t expect him to repeat for the award. Like Al, Smart’s defensive numbers don’t jump off the page, but that’s forgivable. He’s almost always matched up against the #1 threat of the opposing team, regardless of position (barring the true massive centers like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid).

And like Al, since December 1st, those defensive numbers have improved: 108.5 DRTG and +0.5 DRTG Diff. He leads the team in steals with 48, is always willing to sacrifice his body and take a charge, and, of course, regularly does Marcus Smart stuff.

I expect by the end of the season his defensive stats will catch up to the eye test and we will get many more clips of Smart making offenses look silly.

1. Derrick White

DRTG - 106.5
DFG% Diff. - -2.3%
DRTG Diff. - -6.0

The only thing crazier than Derrick White’s hairline are his defensive numbers. There are very few guards in the league that impact shooting efficiency of offensive players at every level. This is especially around the rim where smaller guards often have little impact on an opponent's ability to finish. Well, Derrick White is one of those very rare guards that impacts shots at every level, but especially at the rim. I mean look at this chart.

A 6’3” guard is holding opponents to 5.5% worse shooting from within 6 feet. That is nuts, and I also don’t think it’s a fluke. He currently leads the Celtics in blocks with 41. He has more blocks than Jakob Poeltl and Clint Capela. He has one less block than Jarrett Allen. He’s regularly flying around and protecting the rim, despite, like I said above, being 6’3”.

He’s a master at navigating around screens and sticking with star players. And he’s very difficult to shake in isolation.

And despite being a point guard, it’s not like he gets pushed around on the block. One instance against the Cavs, Jarrett Allen tried to take White down to the post for an easy two. Allen has about 9 inches and 700 pounds (rough estimate) on White, and White just stands him up. He forces the tough hook shot, miss, and the Cs are going the other way. I break that play down here (and a bunch of other things that make Derrick great):

We got to witness the first guard winning the DPOY in several decades last year. Well, Derrick White is making a case that it should be two in a row.

I hope you enjoy our breakdown of the Nets game, the discussion about the defense, and the ever-popular schadenfreude report. It was a big day for the report with the Bucks, Sixers, and Nets (obviously) all losing. As always, thank you so much for listening, please subscribe to the CelticsBlog podcast feed and First to the Floor on YouTube! We appreciate all the support.

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