Stat: The Boston Celtics lead the league in defensive efficiency with a mark of 95.3. Boston overtook the second place Philadelphia 76ers by .5 points after beating them 103-79 last nightat the TD Garden.
Take: This as much as anything signals Philly’s run as anything but first round prey to Miami or Chicago over, and despite a lengthy hot start to the season it’s one we all should have seen coming. A team without anything close to resembling a great scorer, an offense that relies almost solely on jumpers, and a great defense predicated by fire, energy, and focus was bound to come back to earth as any season – let alone this lockout-induced sprint of 2012 – wore on. And considering Doug Collins’ teams have always had a tendency to eventually cool on his demanding style, it was really just a matter of time for the 76ers.
But this is about the new-look Celtics, because what they’ve done defensively over the last month has not only served as one of the most fantastic runs on that end of the floor the NBA’s ever seen, but also, and more importantly, resurrected their once dead 2012. Some stats on Boston’s historically dominant D since they suffered a 98-91 loss to Denver on March 17th (accompanied by season-long league averages):
- Defensive Efficiency: 89.6 (101.7)
- PPG Allowed: 83.4 (96.1)
- Average Opponent Effective FG%: 41.2 (48.6)
- Opponent Turnover Rate: 16.15 (13.81)
As you can see, the Celtics have been otherworldly on defense over their last 12 games. If the marks above were held for the entire season Boston would rank first by wide, wide margins in DEF EFF, PPG Allowed, and EFF FG%, and fall just short of (ironically) Tony Allen’s Memphis Grizzlies in opponent turnover rate. So taking all that into consideration, it should be no surprise that the Celtics suddenly lead the Atlantic Division by three games and are near locks to make the postseason (John Hollinger’s Playoff Odds give them a season high 98.9% chance), despite failing to completely remedy their offensive woes and a brutal season-ending schedule. That’s how good they’ve been defensively.
And yet all this makes relative sense when looking at Doc Rivers’ playing rotation. The Celtics have been awesome defensively since Kevin Garnett came aboard in 2008 and changed the team’s culture and identity, but even during the Big Three’s most formidable years from 2008-2010 Boston didn’t boast the defensive weapons they do now.
Garnett is still the elite of the elite on this end, Rajon Rondo is coming off consecutive All-Defensive First Team selections, Paul Pierce remains a far underrated piece when engaged, and the Celtics as a whole play on the proverbial “string” as well as they ever have. But the difference over this run has been increased playing time for Avery Bradley and Greg Stiemsma.
We touted Bradley’s defensive potential/prowess a few weeks back, and with consistent minutes he’s done nothing but totally cement what we saw in February. He’s a total monster defensively, combining great quickness and speed with wiry strength and a relentless, physical mentality that can’t be matched. Bradley only broke into the starting lineup when Ray Allen went down with an injury in late March, but Allen returned last Wednesday against San Antonio and Rivers has stuck with the kid to continued defensive success.
Stiemsma, too, has taken advantages of injuries to Boston veterans to carve out a seemingly permanent niche in Rivers’ rotation. The 6’11” former D-Leaguer gives Boston size they obviously lack without Jermaine O’Neal and Chris Wilcox, and offers the Celtics something not even Kendrick Perkins did at the height of his mean-mugging days in Green and Gold: shot-blocking. Lots of shot-blocking.
Long story (finally) short, if the Celtics keep up this torrid defensive pace it won’t matter how putrid they are on the other end once the postseason rolls around – they’ll still be a threat to win a series they shouldn’t. The other team needs to score points to win, too, and they just haven’t been able to do it against this particular bunch. With Stiemsma and, especially, Bradley, Boston’s added two aces to what was already an elite defense spearheaded by Garnett and Rondo, a fact that should scare the hell out of sometimes offensively-stagnant favorites Miami and Chicago.