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Kristaps Porzingis’ defense is elevating the Celtics

Kristaps Porzingis has been a huge addition to the Celtics defensive system.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Since Kristaps Porzingis has been with the Boston Celtics, the primary discussion has been his offensive skillset. It’s true; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have never had a pick-and-roll partner like Porzingis. And his floor spacing is creating more scoring opportunities for the star duo.

However, Porzingis is also making a legitimate impact on the defensive end, too. The 7-foot-3 big man is a genuine rim-protector and shot deterrent. Guards and wings must think twice before venturing into the Celtics restricted area when he’s on the court. There’s more to Porzingis’ defense than just size, though. He makes things happen. He creates defensive events.

Unlike most big men his size, Porzingis has the lateral quickness and foot speed to be an effective perimeter defender. Over his first 10 games, Boston’s stretch-five is guarding an average of 6.6 shot attempts from deep, holding his opponents to 37.9% from the field.

Porzingis can block shots from anywhere. It comes with the territory of being over 7 feet tall. However, his ability to operate in space makes him a reliable defensive presence. For the most part, Joe Mazzulla's big man is tasked with defending half-court actions in drop defense. Yet, Porzingis can fulfill a “shuttle” role when he closes out to shooters to deter shots when necessary.

Of course, closing out to shooters often means you’re forcing them to drive the close-out. So far, Porzingis has done a good job of staying in front of his man and creating events out of those situations.

Porzingis rotates over to defend a pick-and-pop. Dorian Finney-Smith sees Porizngis closing out and looks to beat him off the dribble and force him to flip his hips on the move. Porzingis plants his foot and back peddles to stay with his man, forcing a tough layup and the miss.

Switching momentum at a speed like that is a difficult feat. You can see Porzingis lose some of his balance for a moment. Yet, he stays in the play and creates an event by forcing the miss. Those moments are valuable both in a vacuum and in the grander scheme.

“He studies tendencies; he knows how to take things away, so we need him to be dynamic defensively,” Mazzulla said after Boston’s preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets. “There are times where he has to guard the five. There are times when we’re gonna switch. And there are times when we’re gonna let him roam...So, continuing to get comfortable in our system and how we operate and take ownership of it and communicate, from day one to now, I think he’s really picked it up defensively.”

A good example of Porzingis studying tendencies and looking to limit their effectiveness is how Porzingis guarded Bam Adebayo when Boston played the Miami Heat on Oct. 27. Porzingis guarded him for 38.5 partial possessions, leading to 8:24 of game time the pair were matched up. During that time, Adebayo shot 8-of-15 but only provided two assists.

Miami runs a lot of their actions through their big man. Their elbow offense is a focal point in getting Jimmy Butler heading downhill. Porzingis looked to limit the play initiation from the elbows when guarding Adebayo, forcing his man into creating shots for himself rather than letting Butler get some momentum driving the lane.

Here, you can see Porzingis deflect the entry pass into Adebayo, speeding his man up and instantly taking him out of rhythm. Porzingis plays him tightly but steps off enough to encourage Adebayo to face up. From there, it’s a simple one-on-one matchup that ends in a missed bucket — credit Jaylen Brown for the rearview contest, too.

Porzingis’ initial deflection altered the tempo of the possession. His presence around the rim also deterred any weakside actions to get someone curling toward the paint. And of course, being surrounded by four other top-tier defensive players didn’t hurt, either.

In this example, Porzingis is once again guarding Adebayo. His body is positioned to defend a potential hand-off on the strong side, inviting Miami’s big man to face up and attack off the dribble. When the face-up occurs, Porzingis slides his feet to get in front of his man and contest the shot. He was baiting the drive and got what he wanted.

We’ve also seen Porzingis operate as a point-of-attack defender on the perimeter, with encouraging results.

Ideally, Porzingis is more of a “last line of defense” or is used to contain ball-handlers who prove off-screen. However, knowing that he can also step up and guard an initial entry without relying on fouling or being susceptible to getting consistently smoked off the dribble is comforting.

There is also an upside to having a legitimate seven-footer around the glass. Porzingis is averaging 6.8 rebounds per game and is leading the Celtics with 1.9 boxouts per game — 1.5 of those coming on the defensive end. Boston has multiple solid rebounders in their rotation, allowing them to control their own glass and the pace of the game. That’s why the Celtics currently rank 2nd in opponents 2nd chance points allowed, giving up just 11.8 per game.

Porzingis joined Boston as one of the better big men defenders in the NBA. He protects the rim, guards the perimeter, and can move his feet in the mid-range. He can rotate as a helper or be the primary guy in the action. Now that other high-level defenders surround him and is playing with purpose, we’re starting to see the best of what he brings to the table.

The encouraging part is that we’re only 10 games into the Celtics season. He’s still getting to grips with the system and developing chemistry with his teammates. That means things are likely going to get even better. That should be music to Celtics fan's ears and create excitement for the coming months.

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