BOSTON – While the Boston Celtics have been struggling on the offensive end of late, they’ve been quietly making strides on the other side of the ball.
Their recent shooting slump has understandably been a hot topic, given their 4-5 record in December, but their defensive gains are more noteworthy in the long run, considering how potent their offense has proven to be for most of the season.
Through the end of November, Boston had been ranked 20th leaguewide in defensive rating with a mark of 112.4. In December, however, the C’s have allowed nearly six and a half fewer points per 100 possessions with a fourth-ranked mark of 106.1.
“It’s encouraging,” interim head coach Joe Mazzulla said following practice Tuesday morning, “because I think in order to be a great defensive team you have to have great effort. And I think our guys, regardless of what’s going on at the other end of the floor, our guys play really hard and they do a lot of the right things on the defensive end.”
The recent surge on that end has allowed Boston to rise among the top 10 teams defensively with an eighth-ranked mark of 110.6. And, thanks to their historic start offensively, the C’s are still hanging onto the No. 1 offensive rating with a mark of 116.8. Those two numbers combine for a league-best net rating of 6.2.
“I think our overall individual defense has been good,” said Mazzulla. “Our transition defense has been good, and I think we’re just doing a good job on our schemes and our game plan execution.”
To Mazzulla’s point on transition defense, the C’s are among the top 10 teams in fewest fast-break points allowed this season and have also allowed the fewest points per game off turnovers.
A couple of other significant defensive statistics: they have allowed the fewest assists per game (21.8) and have been a top five team in defensive 3-point field-goal efficiency over the past month.
Now, they just have to get their own 3-point shots to start falling again.
“It’s a funny balance,” Mazzulla pointed out. “For a little while we were great at offense and our defense was shifting and now it’s kind of shifted the other way. So we just have to work to be balanced on both ends.”
Even though there’s an imbalance at the moment, Malcolm Brogdon doesn’t view it as a long-term negative. In fact, he believes that the downward offensive shift has played a part in waking the Celtics up on the defensive end and that it’s only a matter of time before they can strike that balance that Mazzulla is looking for.
“Honestly, I think part of it is not shooting the ball as well,” the veteran guard theorized of his team’s defensive surge. “I think we’ve had to hang our hat on something and that’s the way we’ve stayed in a lot of these games is defensively, especially over the last five games when we’ve struggled a little bit offensively. So defensively, we’re playing excellent on that end. We just have to get both ends clicking together.”
There’s no doubt that the Celtics should be able to start clicking on the offensive end again, knowing that their period of greatness was a much larger sample size than their recent period of slippage. We’re not saying that they’ll necessarily pick things back up at the same historic rate they started the season with, but they have enough talented scorers to be one of the best offenses in the league.
As for the defense, last year’s team showed us that it can be the best of the best at that end of the court. It's been trending back toward that direction lately and getting Rob Williams up to speed again should help it move up the rankings even more.