The Fundamentals: Brad Stevens’ tenure with Celtics off to scrappy, stifling start
Celtics coach Brad Stevens is no stranger to the exceptional. In the NCAA realm of powerhouse schools and bulk recruiting, he took a steady path in making Butler basketball a presence. His team was the mid-major that could — a two-time national runner-up, once as a No. 5 seed and once as a No. 8. He embraced every advantage he could find in a subset of the coaching industry that is notoriously old-fashioned, and made Drew Cannon the first full-time, analytics-driven hire to a college coaching staff. After all that, Stevens blindsided the basketball world when he agreed to step away from the groundwork he had built at Butler for a lengthy, substantial arrangement to coach the Celtics.
Breaking expectation, in a way, is simply what Stevens does.
That should at least mute some of the surprise in response to Stevens’ positive turn in the NBA, where he’s guided a partially deconstructed (and initially listless) Celtics roster to an Atlantic Division-leading 10-12 record. Many of Stevens’ coaching peers have tried to make this exact jump in the past, from leader of college kids to motivator of highly talented and well-compensated professionals. Their stories are largely told in snickers; Rick Pitino is a punchline in Boston, where he took the Celtics to four straight losing seasons; John Calipari had a forgettable run with the Nets in the late 1990s; Mike Montgomery didn’t get much out of the Warriors in two straight 34-win seasons in the mid-2000s. The tales of their failure serve as warning to all who consider the same path, and yet they didn’t deter Stevens or impede his early progress.
To call Stevens’ transition “seamless” would understate both his diligence and his team’s early flaws. The seams are there — Stevens has just worked relentlessly to keep them from showing. That patchwork effort begins on the defensive end, where after a rough start Stevens has pushed his team into the top 10 in points allowed per possession in a crowning achievement in scrap and scramble. Most of Boston’s big men are undersized, its starting point guard is a defensive liability and nowhere to be found is the kind of transformational defender you’d expect of a top-10 unit. But Stevens and the Celtics make it work, through a smart system and improved focus throughout the roster.
It took a minute for the players to click into a new system from a new voice, but in a little more than a month Celtics forward Gerald Wallace has gone from hammering his teammates for their lack of effort to declaring that Boston is playing “almost perfect” basketball. That’s a hilarious overreach, but it’s a testament all the same to the way the Celtics have pulled together their defense.
They’ve done so by locking down the perimeter with incredible success, as Boston has prioritized its defense of the three-point line. When beyond the arc, Celtics defenders play tight to their marks, almost to a degree that would encourage driving. When the ball swings to an open opponent, a Boston player sprints out to chase him inside the arc. Everything is geared toward forcing shooters to compromise, and as a result the Celtics allow the fewest number of three-point attempts in the league (just 16.5 per game) at the second-worst percentage. Plus, forcing shooters to put the ball on the floor has created turnovers from a possession type that’s normally as safe as they come. The catch-and-shoot three-pointer is an incredibly low-risk opportunity, but the Celtics have forced turnovers on 7 percent of their opponents’ spot-up possessions, according to Synergy Sports. That’s an impressive mark, on par with the three-point-conscious defenses in Indiana and Miami.
With such consistent pressure applied on the perimeter, Boston funnels opponents inward. Only six teams allow more field-goal attempts in the restricted area per game, but the Celtics compensate for that provision by contesting those attempts wonderfully. One wouldn’t think that Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass and undrafted rookie Vitor Faverani could form such a capable trio of help defenders, but the Celtics’ second line of defense has been so punctual in its rotations and so effective in its contests as to make this strategic arrangement altogether manageable. That’s what fundamentally separates Boston from a team like Detroit; Sullinger and Bass may lack the size of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but they do a dramatically better job of positioning themselves against opposing drives.
The same is true of the Celtics’ work in guarding the pick-and-roll. The basic defensive structure in place isn’t too different from what you’ll find in Indiana, which makes sense given that Stevens has picked the brain of Pacers coach Frank Vogel. Celtics big men will guard the pick-and-roll by laying back to the free-throw line, containing the ball handler in a low-efficiency pocket until the screened guard can recover. Sullinger is especially successful in that regard. He’s not especially big or quick, but by taking smart angles, Sullinger appears to cover more ground than he does. He’s always in the way, whether in keeping a ball handler from getting to the rim or bumping a roll man off his path.
It helps, too, that Jeff Green and Wallace are able to step in from the perimeter to leave the basket better protected. On this play, Green strays from the Grizzlies’ Tayshaun Prince — an unthreatening 21 percent shooter from beyond the arc — by design to delay Zach Randolph in the pick-and-roll:
Note: With these interactive still shots, hover over the target icons to view the relevant explanation as captions. To watch the full video of the play, click the overlaying play button.
Wallace tends to be a bit better with this kind of action than Green, who can be caught by a pass to his mark before he has a chance to recover. But as long as he closes out quickly to scare his opponent inside the three-point line, the principles of Boston’s defense remain intact: The high-percentage shot will have been averted and the help will still be in place. From there, it’s up to Sullinger, Bass and Faverani to protect the paint and the basket, an area in which all three have proved solid.
Opponents, though, don’t seem particularly hip to that fact. You’ll often see Celtics foes try to post up the squatty Sullinger, disregarding that he pushes bigger opponents off their spot with regularity and forces tough scoring angles inside. Some will try to sneak an attempt by Faverani around the rim, too, seemingly unaware that he’s been one of the better shot-blockers in the NBA (2.4 blocks per 36 minutes). There’s an element of surprise to the way that Boston’s bigs have held things down in the lane, which should only make the Celtics all the more fascinating in the long game. Competent though they may be, players like Sullinger, Bass and Faverani are not beyond exploiting; there are ways around and over the help they provide. But it’s up to Stevens and the Celtics to adjust when that time comes, and to find ways to further minimize defensive risk from entirely different angles.
Stevens has succeeded in his primary challenge of installing a system. If you watch closely, you can even catch notorious defensive spoil Jordan Crawford pre-rotating at times. That’s a problem all its own, but the fact that a coach could hammer a scheme into Crawford’s head to the point that he would be ahead of schedule on his rotation is a miracle in itself.
It’s from that foundation that Stevens has given a broken team something with which to work. Many of these Celtics will be gone by the time the team looks to rebuild in earnest, whether shipped out to save money or merely replaced by more qualified rotation players. But in their current form, they seem to have taken to the instruction of their fresh-faced rookie coach to a degree that can subsidize a near-.500 record.
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