Defensive Switches Will Continue in Boston

Brandon Bass, LeBron James, Paul Pierce

LeBron James saw a lot of Brandon Bass and Paul Pierce during last season's Eastern Conference Finals.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

MIAMI – Doc Rivers never taught his players to switch on defense until midway through last season. That’s when his team morphed into one of the most impenetrable defensive walls in the history of the NBA.

The Celtics wound up making it to the Eastern Conference Finals but lost to the Miami Heat in seven games. Their staunch, switch-prone defense was unquestionably the reason why they were on the verge of the NBA Finals.

“When we started finally teaching to switch last year, we were better defensively,” Rivers said before Monday’s practice in Miami. “That’s something we’ve never done. I really didn’t like it (but) the better we got at it the more I liked it.”

He liked it most against the Heat, because Miami happens to be the one team in the league that cannot be beaten unless their challenger can operate defensively while switching. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade orchestrating the Heat’s offense, mismatches are all over the floor at all times. Their eclectic set of skills, coupled with their strength and speed, allows them to take advantage of nearly any matchup that comes their way.

The teams that match up best against the Heat are the ones that are deep with athletes who can defend multiple positions. The Celtics were surprisingly strong in that area last season once Rivers altered their defensive principles.

Paul Pierce, Mickael Pietrus and Brandon Bass consistently switched on 3-4 screens when James was handling the ball. Likewise, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Keyon Dooling and Avery Bradley (in the regular season) switched on perimeter screens when Wade was handling the ball.

Boston’s formula worked for the majority of the series until the Heat committed to playing small ball. That decision, as Rivers has said time and time again, sparked Miami to a title.

“I think Miami has married themselves to going small this year, the whole year” commented Rivers. “Last year they didn’t do it until we forced them, basically. And from Game 4 or 5 on, they went small.”

The Celtics are now able to marry themselves to such a lineup as well. The additions of Jeff Green and Courtney Lee give Rivers the flexibility to cater his lineup to nearly any situation, particularly against James, the league’s reigning MVP.

“You just need multiple players to guard him,” Rivers said of James. “And we have about three or four guys that have a chance to guard him.”

Two of those men are Green and Lee. Green, in particular, is viewed as the secondary defender on James behind Paul Pierce. Green stands at 6-foot-9 and displayed many flashes of elite athleticism during this preseason. However, the most important piece to Green’s puzzle is his continued improvement on the defensive end.

“He’s bought in completely, which is the first step. Now the next step is all of the little things,” said Rivers, referring to Green’s defense. “He’s getting better. I mean, he’s really improved from when he was here the first time.”

Green’s marked improvement is critical to the Celtics’ prospects against the Heat. He will be involved in switches at several different positions, likely ranging from shooting guard to power forward. Green acknowledges that defending James and the Heat is an incredible challenge, but he and his teammates know how to make things difficult for the Heat’s top players.

“Just make everything tough for them,” Green said of James and Wade. “They’re great players, top-five players in this league. And we have to do it as a team and not allow them to get easy dunks in transition, or easy layups. We’ve just got to make every shot for them tough.”

The best way to do that is to switch on defense. Rivers and the Celtics succumbed to that fact last season and it nearly paid off with a trip to the NBA Finals. Now they’ll bring similar strategy into the 2012-13 season, but with many more defensive weapons in their pocket.