The Boston Celtics have one of the best defenses in the league, but will it be enough to lead to success in the playoffs?
The Boston Celtics quite literally limped into the playoffs, with about half of their team sidelined with some sort of injury and relying on rookies and unproven role players to log big minutes in the playoffs.
As would be expected when a team is playing nearly a half-dozen rookies, the Celtics are struggling to generate offense. Even during their recent six game winning streak, the Celtics only averaged 103 points per game. For a comparison, if the Celtics averaged 103 ppg per season, they would rank 26th in the league.
The Celtics’ strength all season, but especially after Kyrie Irving went down, has been their defense. The Celtics are second in defensive rating, and per 100 possessions the team ranks second in defensive rebounding and also employs the stingiest three point defense in the NBA.
With Irving on the shelf, the Celtics lose their best creator on offense and their best crunch time scorer. The Celtics are significantly worse on offense when Irving isn’t on the court, but they are significantly better defensively; opponents average 106 points per 100 possessions when Irving is on the floor and they average 102 points per 100 possessions when Irving is off the floor.
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If the Celtics are going to compete in the playoffs, they need to rely on their defensive strength to pound teams into submission. Chances are the Celtics are going to be playing better offensive opponents in the playoffs (Toronto, Cleveland and Milwaukee all rank in the top seven in scoring) and their current roster is not going to be able to match-up with those high-flying units.
Even in their current state, the Celtics are a tremendous defensive outfit. Al Horford is a DPOY candidate that can protect the rim; switch on pick and rolls, and cover for a teammate’s mistake. Aron Baynes is a physical big man that can bang inside and is averaging 10 rebounds per 36 minutes. Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Semi Ojeleye are lengthy wing players that can at least physically confront the East’s best wing players; whether that be LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan or Ben Simmons.
A lot of the Celtics’ defense is going to depend on the health of Marcus Smart. Smart, in a lot of ways the heart and soul of the Celtics, is recovering from thumb surgery, and will miss the first round. If Smart can get back to the Celtics, his bully defending could swing a game or two.
The troubling thing is that even if the Celtics play superb defense, it may not mean they will win. Despite the notion that defense wins championships, the fact is offensive juggernauts have fared better recently in the NBA playoffs.
Last season, only three of the top ten teams in defensive rating made it out of the first round. When it comes to the playoffs; the game slows down and teams need to a go-to scorer that can create his own shot more than ever. Without Irving, the Celtics lack a player like that.
We have seen this over the years; with teams like Memphis and Atlanta playing terrific team defense but struggling in the playoffs because they lack a true number one option on offense. The reality is that even if the Celtics play amazing defense, they will need someone on offense, be that Brown, Tatum, Horford, Morris or Rozier, to step up and score in the clutch. In the playoffs, that has proven to be a tall task.