I’ve long been a fan of the Boston Celtics, and although the Denver Nuggets are my #1, I have enjoyed watching Boston compete this season. At many different points this year there have been times where I thought the Celtics were done. When they lost Gordon Hayward five minutes into the very first game of the regular season I figured they’d tank, and work to secure a solid draft pick in the summer of 2018. After Hayward’s exit, they lost a myriad of other players (to include Kyrie Irving) to injury, and their roster completely changed over the course of the season.
What most impresses me, is that at no time did the Celtics organization give up. They have taken a very firm public stance that winning is and always will be a focus for them—basically tanking is not a part of “The Process”. They’ve been able to capture and hold a high ranking position in the league for the duration of the season, and it all really comes down to the way they play defense.
What does this have to do with the Nuggets, you ask?
Well, I’m particularly interested in the way Boston wins games by leading with their defense, and this is a trait I would like to see the Nuggets adopt. So let’s take a closer look at what allows them to be so effective.
I consulted with my trusted Celtics expert who taught me everything I know about the game of basketball— that is, my dad. My dad played basketball for many years as a point guard who could score from almost anywhere on the court. His knowledge of the game and competitor’s mindset provides a unique inside perspective on why the Celtics are so successful.
He stated that the number one thing that sets Boston apart is on-ball defense. When Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens set out to find players to fill their roster, they focused on two-way players. That is, players who can play both offense and defense. Sure, it’s fine to be like the Houston Rockets and score 120 points per game, but if you give up more than you score, your overall plan isn’t effective.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics allow the lowest effective field goal percentage in the league. They do this by defending both the 3-point line, and the rim. According to Coach Mike Malone,
“They’re the number one defense in the NBA for a reason. You asked the question last game about how hard is it take away the paint and the three, and Boston does that. They don’t beat themselves, and they make you work for everything you get. We’re going to have to try to create some offense from our defense, get pace into the game, and ball movement. If you try to play on one side of the floor and attack this team, it’s going to be a long night. We have to have great ball movement, and with that movement maybe soften their defense up a little bit to get the shots we want.”
Now, the Celtics also have specialist players, like Kyrie Irving, who aren’t necessarily two-way players, but they’re compensated by players like Jaylen Brown who can guard the 3-point line and prevent opponents from getting shots off. The Celtics have held their opponents to just 34.3% beyond the arc this season. Boston also avoids having to double-team players like Joel Embiid because all of their players can effectively defend, thereby eliminating a situation where a savvy three-point shooter gets open has his defender is working a double or triple-team.
You might have noticed that Boston runs a lineup that’s essentially position-less which makes it very difficult for their opponents to take advantage of a mismatch. For example, Al Horford who is their starting Center can play all five positions effectively when the need arises. This is also why Boston has been able to call up virtually any player to fill the absence of someone who has been injured, and the transition is practically seamless.
Right now, it seems like the Celtics are playing on borrowed time, but really they’re just playing their game. Many teams in the NBA have a couple of players who can play two-way basketball, but a lot of players are specialists leaving teams with wide gaps, and opportunities for a defensive-minded team like the Celtics and the Golden State Warriors to take advantage of the weak points.
If the Nuggets can focus on bringing in two-way players for next season, while the current roster focuses on strengthening their defense so that they can become better two-way players, the team has the depth and offensive prowess to handle any number of strategic scenarios. Time will tell if they can put this into practical application. I will remain skeptical, but optimistic.