While there is still a lot of room for improvement, the Boston Celtics are finally starting to realize their defensive potential
Going into this season there was a lot of talk about Al Horford being the one missing piece in an already great Boston Celtics defense. The lone issue the Celtics had on that end last year was their interior, and it was the one thing holding them back from being in true contention for the best defense in the league. Introducing a versatile and fluid defender in Horford was supposed to solidify what could then be the best defensive unit in the NBA. The problem, however, is that the Celtics have been one of the most disappointing teams on defense this season.
They have not been generating turnovers like they did a season ago. They have allowed opponents to shoot lights out, and their interior has been one of the biggest weaknesses in the NBA. They had no rebounding and not a single player that could bring any kind of consistent resistance in the paint.
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Of course, all of this occurred with multiple injuries to three of the four best defensive players on the team. First it was Marcus Smart, then when things got to their absolute worst, it was both Jae Crowder and Horford. The Celtics lost arguably the two most important defenders on the team, and their only strong front court defenders on the team. Naturally, the Celtics struggled tremendously, but looking like one of the worst defenses in the league had many concerned it was about more than just the injuries.
The Celtics had one of the worst defensive ratings in the NBA, and they were allowing mediocre teams to score at will. The Celtics got no boost from their defense in any way, and each game felt as though the offense had to do more and more to win. The Celtics were losing games on rebounding alone and they were not doing anything to try and compensate for that.
The Celtics managed to have a strong defense without that interior presence last season, and they should have been able to put together stronger performances during those injuries this season. That being said, now that Horford and Crowder are back in the lineup, things have looked a lot different. More progress needs to be made, but that are looking a lot more like they should on that end.
All of a sudden the Celtics are winning games because of their defense, and they can feel as though they can make up for shortcomings on the offensive end once again. The Celtics no longer have a blatant weakness to exploit, and opposing offenses have not been finding close to the success they were during the injuries.
The Celtics have won three out of four since Horford and Crowder returned, and they have held their opponent at 93 points or less in each game except the most recent against one of the truly elite teams in the Spurs. Prior to the three game winning streak, the Celtics held their opponents under 93 points just once, with triple digits being the most regular occurrence.
Nov 25, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) dribbles against Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
While their league rankings still have not fully recovered, their defensive efficiency has been one of the best in the league since Horford’s return, and it is a welcomed sight considering the way their offense has started to struggle.
The Celtics are starting to look a lot more like last season. They are using their aggressiveness to force turnovers and get running in transition, and they are starting to do a much better job of winning the battle of quantity of opportunities.
The Celtics realize that even if their offense continues to be much improved, defense is the only way they can cement themselves as one of the true contenders in the East. Their versatility should be at the absolute best. With Crowder, Smart, Jaylen Brown and Horford, the Celtics have all the pieces they need to accommodate almost any match ups and have all the freedom they could need with positions in small ball lineups.
Boston’s defense has been transformed with the return of Horford and Crowder, but it is not only that. The Celtics have held one of the leagues best defensive ratings over the last nine games, over half of which were while Horford was still injured. The Celtics realized that their defensive struggles were not only about Horford and Crowder, and the back court finally started putting things together as Horford and Crowder’s return approached.
The Celtics have benefitted from improved shot blocking, rebounding and turnovers with both Crowder and Horford on the court as opposed to off, but the biggest strength of this defense continues to be their back court. The Celtics get their best disruption from their back court and their offense benefits the most from their back court defense. The problem, however, is that the Celtics still have a negative turnover differential, and that needs to change quickly. As long as the Celtics are losing the turnover battle, the defense will not have the kind of impact it did last season.
On both ends of the court, the Celtics will not be at their best when they are not winning the turnover battle, and that is the area where their defense needs to look to improve the most now. The Celtics have eliminated the exploited match ups and glaring problems in the interior with Crowder and Horford, but that does not mean the defense is as good as it needs to be.
The Celtics expected improvement this season and should continue to happen for Boston this year. The Celtics have done enough with their full lineup to prove that they will not be a bad defense this season, and those first couple weeks were both fluky and the result of injuries. That being said, the Celtics realize that their defense needs to take another step and reach their potential of being one of the most feared units in the NBA.
With the starting lineup featuring both Crowder and Horford, the Celtics have a positive steal, block, turnover and foul differential. The Celtics have established play makers on the defensive end, and now that they are all on the court together, they are continually making more plays on that end than their opponent.
The Celtics can still get an even better advantage, but the defense of a unit that will continue to get more comfortable together should continue to make more and more plays than their opponent, eventually allowing them to make up for any potential shortcomings on the second unit or if the start to struggle shooting the ball.