The Boston Celtics’ 2017-18 season began as dreadfully as it possibly could have. New star Gordon Hayward suffered a ghastly season-ending ankle fracture in a blowout loss to the Cavaliers. No one would have been surprised if that abrupt misfortune derailed their season, but Brad Stevens’ squad has turned things around in an exciting way.
After an 0-2 start, the new-look Shamrocks rolled out a cohesive attack on offense and defense. The club’s young role players have stepped up superbly, and the rotation’s collective success on defense has been particularly impressive. Through eight games, Boston is 6-2 and owns the league’s best defensive rating, surrendering 97.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Opponents are shooting just 43.5 percent from the field, and the Celtics look like they can compete without Hayward.
Kyrie Irving’s effort and execution on the defensive end have vastly exceeded expectations. Throughout his first six seasons in the league, the former Cavalier developed a reputation as a scoring savant and underwhelming defender. Danny Ainge signed him for his offense, but Irving has displayed a heightened defensive impact in his new surroundings. With the help of Stevens’ tutelage in a culture that values defense, Irving has improved his awareness and effort on that end.
When Irving is on the floor, opponents are averaging just 96.5 points per 100 possessions. It’s the best defensive rating of his career. Why? Part of the reason is that playing in a versatile and interchangeable lineup does a better job of minimizing his weaknesses. But it’s also because he’s playing more intensely and executing more consistently.
He’s still prone to the occasional backdoor pass or dying on a screen, but he’s more alert. Irving is working hard when his man is away from the ball, and he’s bringing better energy and active hands when he’s on the ball or one pass away.
Watch this sequence where he hustled to stick with Sacramento Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic and bother his shot. Irving fought over screens, slid through screens and contested the shot from the side. It’s a good example of how he’s stayed attached to shooters away from the ball:
Irving’s uptick in activity has also resulted in more deflections and steals. He’s averaging 2.6 steals per game and 3.9 per 100 possessions, which dwarfs his career averages of 1.3 per game and 2.0 per 100 possessions. Those numbers will likely come back down to earth, but the point is that he’s become much more disruptive.
Here are a few clips that show his anticipation and assertiveness. He blew up Goran Dragic’s fast break plans, robbed Patty Mills in broad daylight, and deflected a Willie Cauley-Stein pass after a switch:
For the most part, Irving is doing a better job picking his battles than he did in Cleveland. In Stevens’ system, he’s learning when to be aggressive, when to contain, and when to switch with teammates.
Stevens had this to say to Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe about Irving’s solid decision-making:
“…You know, when you’re guarding all those high screens in the NBA that’s not easy. And he’s doing a good job of knowing when to peel back and switch. He’s doing a good job of chasing when he needs to chase, he stays in plays, he gets his hands on balls; he got a couple more balls [Monday].”
Irving’s defensive viability is, in part, a manifestation of the Celtics’ collective execution. They’re doing a lot of switching this season, and they can pull it off because there are several interchangeable wings, and their communication is strong. Boston’s stars and role players hold each other accountable throughout possessions so they stay on the same page.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have supplied terrific versatility due to their length and footspeed. They’ve both spent time checking speedy ballhandlers, wings and small-ball fours. Brown has often assumed the more challenging backcourt matchup, and consequently Irving often guards the less-threatening backcourt player.
Tatum’s quick acclimation is a huge reason why the Celtics’ starting lineup is plus-22.8 in 55 minutes together. They become even more stingy on the perimeter when they swap in Marcus Smart for Tatum: The lineup of Aaron Baynes, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Kyrie Irving is plus-58.5 and is outshooting opponents by 19 percent. Stevens has also relied on young role players Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye and rookie Daniel Theis to execute switches and defend away from the basket.
If we had to single out one player who’s responsible for Boston’s switching effectiveness, it’s Al Horford. The 6-10 power forward has some of the best footwork and basketball instincts in the league. He often renders pick-and-rolls useless thanks to his ranginess and agility, and his teammates trust him to contain guards when they need him to.
Here’s a recent example of the team’s ability to switch on and off the ball. There were four different switches/switchbacks on this play, including Horford jumping out on Buddy Hield and stymieing his drive:
That play exemplifies how Boston’s positional interchangeability has tightened the screws on opponents’ 3-point chances. Foes are shooting just 31 percent from deep (second-best in the league) and hitting just 7.7 triples per 100 possessions. It’s no wonder the Celtics haven’t yielded more than 94 points in a game during their six-game winning streak.
The Shamrocks’ collective defensive mindset is also apparent in little details like transition hustle and rebounding. For the most part, Boston has sprinted back on fast breaks to pursue the ball. That not only limits easy layups, but it also cuts down on putbacks from opponents. Thanks in part to ball-hawking guards like Smart and Rozier, the Celtics are hauling in 37.7 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions and holding opponents to 8.7 offensive boards.
We didn’t necessarily expect the Celtics to be terrible on defense; they were in the middle tier last year. They had to incorporate some new faces, including Irving, so we didn’t anticipate elite stoppage, but that’s exactly what we’ve seen so far. Irving is playing the best defense of his career, the young role players are executing within the system, and Horford is the ingredient that makes things run so smoothly.
It’s still early, and there’s no guarantee Irving and Co. will keep up the energy and overachievement. However, this half-dozen-game stretch is encouraging evidence to suggest Boston could keep itself in the Eastern Conference hunt.
More NBA Coverage
- Boston’s youngsters stepping up in absence of Gordon Hayward
- Al Horford continues to wear many hats for Boston
- How Boston’s offense can help Kyrie Irving without Gordon Hayward