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Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Celtics' success starts with stops

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- There's a perception that the Boston Celtics are an overachieving bunch, an aging team that is leaning on its experience to mask the deficiencies that have set in over time.

An inconsistent offense, a short-and-streaky bench and a penchant for making things as difficult as possible on themselves have done little to dispel that notion. But what sometimes gets glazed over is the fact that these Celtics lay claim to the best defense in the NBA playoffs.

And, well, defense wins … Oops, let's not put the cart before the horse. How about, defense has given Boston a chance to win the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics sit one game away from that feat and host the Miami Heat in Game 6 on Thursday night at TD Garden (8:30 p.m., ESPN).

A victory pushes Boston through to the NBA Finals for the third time in five seasons. Defense has been the calling card of the Celtics' success in the Big Three era, so maybe it's a little surprising that this season's team doesn't get quite the recognition of previous seasons.

Alas, this is the NBA, where transition dunks and hand-in-your-face 3-pointers are more likely to show up on "SportsCenter" than multiple stops. If a defensive play doesn't immediately lead to points at the other end, it's bound for the cutting room floor.

But Boston's entire postseason run has been predicated on defense, which has often picked up a lull-prone offense. For the postseason, the Celtics are averaging 90.2 points per game (10th best of the 16 playoff teams), well behind the three others that were still standing entering Wednesday's action: San Antonio (102.2 ppg, first), Oklahoma City (102, second) and Miami (95.6, fourth).

Truth be told, the Celtics are a more efficient offense than they get credit for. According to Synergy Sports, the Celtics average 0.909 points per play, fifth best in the playoffs. But because they are so prone to turnovers and generate little on the offensive glass (at least before this series against the Heat), their overall effectiveness is a bit skewed.

But then there's Boston's defense. The basic numbers are attractive -- the Celtics allow 87.3 points per game while opponents shoot just 42 percent -- but Synergy stats show just how good Boston is on that side of the ball. The Celtics allow a mere 0.858 points per play overall, tops in the postseason, and that number drops to 0.813 in the halfcourt set.

If you want to beat Boston, you're going to have to do it in transition. The Celtics' erratic offense often gives teams that opportunity, but Boston has been gritty enough to get by, even against three of the better transition teams in the playoffs in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Miami.

Celtics
Getting stops on defense allows the Celtics to score in transition, which has been critical against the Heat.

Case in point: The Celtics struggled offensively for the better part of three quarters in Tuesday's Game 5 against the Heat. Despite all the misses, Miami mustered little in transition and were outscored 19-8 in that area.

The Celtics found a way to limit transition opportunities and generated fourth-quarter stops that allowed them to emerge with a 94-90 triumph on the road.

Sure, this Boston team is leaning hard on all of its experience and mental resolve. There's certainly something to be said for having been in this position before and having overcome mountains of adversity this season.

But the Celtics are winning because of their defense.

So it's not surprising what Celtics coach Doc Rivers pointed to when asked for the key to winning Game 6 in Boston on Thursday night.

"Well, obviously we have to take them out of transition," he said.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Heat have been outscored in transition in all six of their postseason losses. Miami averages 19.5 transition points per game in wins (plus-7.8 over opponents), but a mere 11.8 in losses (minus-4.4).

The formula is simple for Boston: Get stops, get easier opportunities on offense, win games.

"Offensively, it comes down to us getting stops," Rivers said. "When we get stops, we run. When [Miami scores] on us, we really struggle scoring, because they get back. And once [the Heat] get their defense set, their athleticism at times actually overwhelms our offense. So we have to score in transition and we have to score in space. And I really think the only way we do that is by getting stops."

Boston's defense clearly hinges on Kevin Garnett, who has proven to be the individual key to its postseason success (and maybe their second-half resurgence before it). The Celtics can barely afford to take Garnett off the court this postseason.

Garnett is blowing up pick-and-roll attempts and protecting the rim. Buckets don't come nearly as easily when he's on the floor (as reflected in Boston's ridiculous plus/minus numbers based on KG's court status).

"He's just amazing," Rivers said. "He doesn't have to score. Obviously, we need his scoring, that's important. But he's just -- he's our life. I mean, he really is. He just does so many things that don't have numbers to it. A lot of it is with his voice. He's, in a strange way, a calming effect on some of our guys, if you can ever call Kevin that, he is. He's just been terrific for us."

Boston can't help but wonder how much better its defense would be if Avery Bradley was still on the floor. When his season ended due to shoulder surgery in the last round, the Celtics lost their second best defensive player. (Rivers went so far as to call him a defensive captain alongside Garnett.)

But with their veteran Big Four on the floor (often with Mickael Pietrus adding a defensive boost in a smaller lineup), this team continues to thrive defensively.

If the Celtics extend their playoff life, it will be because of defense. The perception may remain that this team is overachieving, and while this certainly may not be the most talented or deepest team they've fielded in recent seasons, the stellar defense is still there. And it's the biggest reason Boston is one game from another shot at an NBA title.