Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Boston’s Backcourt Bandits


The Celtics backcourt defense is fierce.  They routed the Houston Rockets 111-95 on the road yesterday, just 24 hours after stifling the Thunder in OKC.  With these wins the Celtics improve to 6-4 and have their first three game winning streak of the young season.  Based on the way their backcourt defense is playing, this winning streak may be the first of many.

Prior to these high-octane matchups against elite scorers like James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Celtics kicked off their streak with a commanding 106-93 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.  In all three wins, the Celtics limited typically-high scoring opponents under 100 points.  

The Celtics are now 6-1 when holding their opponents under 100, with the only loss coming against the San Antonio Spurs and their #1 ranked defense.  But while San Antonio may have the best overall defense, nobody has a better defensive backcourt than the Celtics.  

The trio of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder constantly apply aggressive ball pressure that leads the Celtics to a whopping NBA-leading 11.8 steals per game.  These “Backcourt Bandits” lead by example.  Their relentless effort on defense inspires other Celtics role players to step up and play tough defense of their own.  As a result, the Celtics have won five of their last six games.

Crowder also leads the NBA with three steals per game – but the steals statistic does not encapsulate all the plays in which tenacious defense leads to turnovers.  Right now, the Celtics force an average of 19 total turnovers per game – the best mark of any team in this category since the 1997-98 Boston Celtics.

Furthermore this year’s Celtics already rank fourth in defensive efficiency, but their 94.2 defensive rating continues to drop as they win games.  They are still ranked behind the Spurs, Heat and Warriors, but with their ability to shut down top scorers, they could easily surpass the Heat and the Warriors on the defensive efficiency leaderboard by the end of November.

Smart is the team’s defensive MVP.  The Celtics’ winning streak began when Smart was reinserted into the starting lineup alongside Isaiah Thomas.  In the OKC game, Smart thoroughly outplayed Westbrook.  Not only did he contribute 26 points and eight rebounds, but he limited the Thunder’s superstar guard to just 5-20 shooting from the field.

On the very next night, Smart was tasked with guarding Harden and his blanket coverage left Harden scoreless on 2-point field goal attempts.  Smart did not allow Houston’s elite scorer anywhere near the rim, causing Harden to finish with just 16 points on 4-10 shooting and all four of his buckets coming from 3-point range.  

Harden is an artist at drawing contact and he perennially leads the league in free throw attempts. But against Smart and the Celtics backcourt defense, Harden attempted just four free throws.

The Celtics actually trailed the Rockets by 15 points in the second quarter before Brad Stevens called a timeout to rally his team.  The defense quickly tightened up, especially on Harden, and the Celtics stormed back to tie the game by halftime.  By early in the fourth, the Celtics found themselves up by nearly 30 points.

The backcourt’s ability to frazzle opposing ball handlers may feasibly enable the Celtics to maintain forced turnover numbers that have not been generated in nearly two decades.  The 19 forced turnovers per game is legitimate; the statistic is not being boosted by any outliers.  In comparison, the defensive-oriented 2007-08 championship Celtics forced just 16 turnovers per game.

Creating turnovers leads to fastbreak points for the young athletic Celtics, but more importantly, it leads to an increase of wild plays, frustration and technical fouls from exasperated opponents.  

Opposing ball handlers visibly lose confidence in either themselves or their teammates after several turnovers have been forced.  Once that happens, the turnovers begin mounting in a snowball effect of frustration and excessive dribbling against unrelenting pressure.  

Some coaches are great at getting their team to regroup and settle down; but a lot of coaches aren’t. As a result, the Celtics will frequently force 20+ turnovers in certain favorable Eastern Conference matchups.  

Look for the Celtics to continue this trend of stellar play and elite defense as they steadily carve out a top-5 spot in the Eastern Conference.  This young Celtics team is undeniably exciting and their fierce backcourt defense is just one of many reasons why they are arguably one big trade away from becoming immediate contenders this year.

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