It's a generally understood principle that true NBA contenders have both a top-ten offense and a top-ten defense.
Of the 64 teams that have made the conference finals since the turn of the century, 35 have ranked in the top third of the league on both sides of the ball; conference finalists that haven't been top two-way teams have generally made up for it by being among the elite on one end or the other. Of the 29 teams that finished outside the top ten on at least one side of the court, 20 of them finished inside the league's top three on their stronger side of the floor. For example, the 2014 Indiana Pacers couldn't score (they finished 22nd in offensive efficiency), but they had the NBA's best defense. The 2010 Phoenix Suns hemorrhaged points (they finished 19th in defensive efficiency) but had the league's most efficient offense. Of the aforementioned 64 conference finalists, only the 2010 Lakers and the 2015 Rockets ranked outside the top ten on one end of the court and outside the top five on the other—and they both finished sixth.
Heading into Monday night's play, only two teams rank in the top ten on both sides of the ball during the 2016-17 season: the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. (Surprise, surprise.) There are, however, three other teams knocking on the door: the Toronto Raptors have the NBA's fourth-best offense and 11th-best defense; the Utah Jazz rank third on defense and 13th on offense; and the Boston Celtics, sporting the league's eighth-best offense, have shot all the way up from No. 18 on defense at the All-Star break to 12th thanks to a post-All-Star run where they've had the fourth-stingiest point-prevention unit in basketball.
The C's may work their way into the top ten by the end of the season or they may not, but it should be clear at this point that their offense alone likely isn't strong enough to power them to the NBA's final four in late May. Because of the way that the Eastern Conference's other top teams are constructed, the lion's share of the responsibility for pushing Boston's thwartation work to another level will likely fall to four perimeter players: Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and rookie Jaylen Brown.
"I think it's one of the things that we've built our team around," Celtics coach Brad Stevens says. "It's the idea of having guys that are versatile perimeter defenders. It's really important to be able to guard a bunch of different guys at different spots. I think that Marcus, Jae, and Avery, certainly, have proven themselves over time. Jaylen's still learning, but—hopefully—we think he can be good down the road at that stuff. The more versatile you are, the better, but you have to go out and do it. And against those really good teams—and any team in this league—you better be 100 percent locked in or else you're in trouble."
That's certainly true. Cleveland, Toronto, and Washington all feature top-ten offenses loaded with perimeter talent. All three teams have star point guards—in Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, and John Wall, respectively—who seem likely to prove too much for Isaiah Thomas to handle defensively over the course of a seven-game series, especially while he's being counted on to power the Boston offense. All three teams also feature at least one other major perimeter threat: there's Toronto All-Star DeMar DeRozan, the Wizards' near All-Star Bradley Beal, and the best player in the league in LeBron James. Of those three teams, only the Raptors really afford the Celtics a convenient place to hide Thomas defensively. We've seen J.R. Smith shoot right over the top of smaller guards before, and Otto Porter's progression in his fourth season makes slotting Thomas onto him a dicey proposition.
Thomas has to be on the floor, though, because the Celtics basically can't score without him. Their offensive efficiency declines by nearly 14 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench this season, per NBA.com. That means we're going to be treated to a whole lot of cross-matching, a whole lot of switching, and a whole lot of helping and recovering if and when the defense breaks down at the point of attack; and it'll largely be up to Boston's perimeter prowlers to make it all work, while still finding a way to crash the boards and ensure the Celtics' glass-cleaning issues don't flare up.
It's a tough ask. Luckily, Boston has doubled up on defensive archetypes in order to attack the problem with a volume of bodies.
Bradley and Smart guard the smalls. They harass ball handlers up and down the court, trying to shave precious seconds off the shot clock before the offense can get into its set. At least, that's their primary responsibility. They're also tasked with switching onto bigger wings. We've seen Smart do that before, and Bradley is up for the challenge. "It's funny because I think if you asked Brad this question two years ago, he probably would say I struggled," he says. "But now, I know he's a lot more confident that I can guard one-two-three, no problem."
That the Celtics have both him and Smart to apply pressure on lead ball handlers is a blessing, because Bradley has dialed back a bit on the full-court hounding that used to be his staple, owing to an increasing minute load and the corresponding offensive burden that has come with it.
"I know in the past, I used to just go balls out. I was picking up the entire game," Bradley says. "And it was because I wasn't playing that many minutes. I started to (eventually) but when I was in the game, I knew that was my job—to give those older guys energy. Now my role is different and I have to be smart about it."
If Bradley has eased up a bit himself, that hasn't stopped him from passing on some of his knowledge. Brown has been a sponge during his rookie season, picking the brains of his more seasoned teammates. "They've taught me a lot of what I know," Brown says of Bradley, Smart, and Crowder. "How to be physical on the ball, how to be a tough, hard-nosed defender, and how to carry that spirit out there on the floor every night. Avery has all those little tricks and stuff that he knows how to do when it comes to defense. I'm still figuring out a lot of those."
Stevens echoes the idea that Brown is still learning and not yet ready to be counted on in the same way the other three members of this foursome can be. He's quick to caution that Brown is still a neophyte, and merely 20 years old. "It's not easy," Stevens says. "It's not easy when you're 20 in this league. It's not easy to be good every night. It's not easy to be consistent for 82 games."
While every-night consistency is likely still a ways away, Brown has indeed been progressing throughout the season, using his length and strength and quickness to lock horns with the best wings in basketball. He says DeRozan has been among the toughest players for him to defend this season because of the Raptors star's patience and ability to get to any spot on the floor he wants. Those attributes are not likely to just fade away in the playoffs. It'll be up to Brown to prove he's grown into the challenge, even if he's merely taking the second crack at the bigger wing scorers while Crowder handles the bulk of the responsibility.
If the Celtics do manage to advance to the conference finals, it's Crowder who will face the greatest test. There's not a player in the league who can actually shut down LeBron James entirely; making things difficult is the true goal for defenders, but even that is far easier said than done. James hung a casual 27-9-6.5 on Crowder in the playoffs two years ago, and he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down since. (James has put up 30-7-12, 23-8-11, and 28-13-10 in three games against Boston this year, though Crowder only played in the latter two.) Crowder is a better player now than he was two years ago, but that doesn't mean he's about to rob the King of his Eastern Conference crown.
Even pondering a potential series against the Cavs is getting ahead of ourselves, though. This version of the Celtics has still yet to get out of Round 1, after all. The way the East shakes out makes it likely they'll at least make their Round 2 debut this May, but from there it's going to take solid two-way effort to advance. Isaiah Thomas will shoulder the largest offensive burden, but the defensive heavy lifting will have to be done by Boston's perimeter quartet.
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