How the Celtics Turned Their Defense Into the NBA’s Best

    A year after stifling the opposition, Boston’s defense looks to be even better this time around. Through five games, the Celtics are allowing a league-low

    October 29, 2018

    A year after stifling the opposition, Boston’s defense looks to be even better this time around.

    Through five games, the Celtics are allowing a league-low 96.3 points per game, almost five points better than the second-ranked Memphis Grizzlies. But Boston isn’t dominating the glass or creating a lot of turnovers. The Celtics rank 15th in the league with a +1 rebound differential and rank 19th in turning over opponents. So how has Boston created the league’s most suffocating defense?

    Part of the answer lies in opponents shooting well below the league average mark. Through Monday, NBA teams are hitting approximately 45.7 percent of their shots and 35.5 percent of their 3-pointers. Boston’s six opponents have combined to shoot 40.7 percent and 27.6 percent from those respective marks. Last year, the Celtics held opponents to two percent below the league-average field goal mark and three percent below the league-average three-point mark. Opponents will eventually make more shots against the Celtics.

    A second component: The Celtics are the best team in the league defending the 3-point line. This isn’t by accident. The NBA has become a three-point centric league over the last four years and that trend should continue this year.


    3-Pt Att/Gm League-Wide
    2014-15 22.4
    2015-16 24.1
    2016-17 27.0
    2017-18 29.0
    2018-19 thru Oct. 28 31.6


    As teams continue to chuck 3s at a high rate, defending the 3-point line effectively is important for any team with hopes of contending. The Celtics have made a concerted effort to prevent opponents from having 3-point success since Brad Stevens took over as head coach.

    Season Opp 3-Pt% League Rank
    2013-14 34.7 5
    2014-15 33.6 4
    2015-16 33.6 4
    2016-17 33.2 2
    2017-18 33.9 1
    2018-19 thru Oct. 28 27.6 1


    Ironically, opposing teams are still taking 32.7 3s against Boston this season, good for the 12th highest mark in the league. The Celtics actually don’t prevent the corner 3 as well as one might think. Corner 3s are typically considered the best shots because they are closest to the basket and Boston’s opponents find relative success in these spots. The Celtics have allowed 7.0 corner 3s per game, according to Opponents have hit 35.7 percent of these shots, giving Boston just the 10th and 12th best defense from the right and left corner respectively in terms of percentage.

    Where the Celtics truly excel is the rest of the perimeter. With versatile defenders like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart having the ability to switch across all wing positions, the Celtics have held opposing teams to a league-best 25.3 percent mark from 3-pointers outside the corners according to Boston had the best mark in this category last year as well, at 32.5 percent.

    The Celtics also aren’t allowing opponents to get easy points from the free-throw line, something they’ve struggled with under Stevens. Boston has allowed just 20.7 free throws per game this season, the third-best mark in the league.

    The final part of Boston’s defensive excellence is its deliberate offense. The Celtics have slowed down offensively over the last two seasons, which in turn limits their opponents’ opportunities at the other end.

    Season Pace Ranking
    2013-14 17
    2014-15 5
    2015-16 4
    2016-17 13
    2017-18 22
    2018-19 21


    The Celtics will likely see their defensive rating slip slightly as opponents shoot closer to league-average marks, but Boston’s scheme has prevented opponents from having 3-point success for a long time and should be able to do the same this year.

    With the team committing fewer fouls and slowing down the pace, the Celtics have shown their defense has the potential to be even better than it was a season ago. With the Raptors and Bucks looking like serious contenders in the East with their high-powered offenses, Boston will need its defense to keep pace for the entire season.


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