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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Celtics' D keeps disappearing

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- The zero stared at Doc Rivers for 46 minutes on Wednesday night, and he never flinched.

His Boston Celtics long ago went cold turkey on offensive rebounding in favor of getting five bodies back to the defensive end. The stats bore out that Boston saved far more points by eliminating transition opportunities and forcing opponents into a half-court game than what they might generate in second-chance opportunities.

But here's the sobering reality for Rivers as he settles in for Thanksgiving dinner back in Orlando, Fla.: His team did everything it could to force the visiting San Antonio Spurs to play a half-court game on Wednesday, and San Antonio responded with a monster offensive night in which it shot a head-shaking 58.4 percent and emerged with a 112-100 triumph at TD Garden.

Doc Rivers
"There's a lot of good things that I see, but defense is not one of them," Doc Rivers said.

Brandon Bass broke up the shutout of offensive rebounds -- the Celtics threatened to be only the second team in the past 25 seasons to finish without an offensive carom -- with a tip-in with 88 seconds to go. The natural inclination in a game in which the Spurs finished with a 41-25 edge on the glass is to wonder if Boston needs to do more to generate offensive rebounds.

Allow Rivers to set that straight: "Offensive rebounds are the least of our problems."

Yes, the Celtics are a mess defensively. Growing pains were expected with a cast of new characters around the Big 3 nucleus of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. But this is borderline unfathomable.

Based on Synergy Sports numbers, which are tracked on a standardized per-play basis, the Celtics rank 26th in overall defense (0.947 points per play), 30th in transition defense (1.459 ppp), and 16th in half-court sets (0.87 ppp) through 12 games this season.

By comparison, the Celtics ranked second in overall defense (0.856 ppp) last season, including 19th in transition (1.155 ppp) and first in half-court sets (0.813 ppp).

As their core aged, the Celtics made a concerted effort to move away from the offensive glass -- leading them to post the league's worst offensive rebound percentage of all time (19.7) last season. Even with an influx of young bodies, Boston has maintained its philosophy this season, but confusion reigns.

The Celtics are having difficulty matching up once they get back on the defensive end, forcing mismatches that opponents have exploited. When Boston has matched up correctly, guards are getting abused by dribble penetration, forcing the big men to help and breaking down Boston's entire defensive system.

Worse yet, the Celtics are trying to force a half-court game and yet they're still slow at times to get back, allowing teams to feast on them when they do have transition opportunities.

Consider Wednesday night. The Spurs generated only 11 transition plays -- a manageable number if Boston had offered any sort of resistance when the veteran-legged Spurs did run. San Antonio generated a staggering 20 points in transition, scoring on nine of those 11 plays (the other two were turnovers). The Celtics never forced a miss in transition.

But it gets worse. Boston got San Antonio to play its half-court game and still gave up 92 points with a set defense. The Spurs zipped the ball around the court and created cracks in the Celtics' defense that they exploited over and over again, often taking advantage of forced help by generating easy looks around the basket.

Just check out Tiago Splitter, who scored 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting in 26 minutes off the bench. Eight of those shots came within three feet of the rim and many of them were virtually uncontested.

Rivers was asked to gauge his frustration level with Boston's defensive woes.

"It's difficult. Very difficult," he said, pausing briefly before trying to add a tiny bit of levity to the situation. "I don't know if there's a word more than that, but if there is, then it's that."

Compounding his frustration is that the Celtics sometimes show signs of being the defense-first team we've come to expect in the Garnett era. How can the defense be so good some nights, and so staggeringly bad the next?

Tiago Splitter
Tiago Splitter waltzed through Boston's defense to the tune of 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

"Listen, there's a lot of good things that I see, but defense is not one of them," Rivers said. "And it's shocking in the games we win, how good our defense is. And in games we lose, how bad it is. Usually, the discrepancy is not that big when you lose and win. You score a couple less points and the other team scores a couple more points. I think it's a 15-point difference in our wins and losses, defensively. It's a huge number. And I have to figure out why that's happening, before our guys have to do it."

Before anyone buries the Celtics, let's remember they exhibited defensive woes at the start of last season -- though not quite to this extent. But the frustration is evident from Rivers and his players, who should be genuinely angered by the defensive product they've displayed as part of a 6-6 start.

In six losses, the Celtics have been tagged for an average of 107 points per game. Only once have they held an opponent to less than triple figures and that was a 99-88 loss to the Bucks in Boston's home opener. In wins, the Celtics are allowing 91.5 points per game (which is more akin to the 89.3 points allowed per game last season).

"We're a grind-it-out type of team," Pierce said. "We can play in the 100s, but we're a team that likes to grind out wins. We don't mind playing a game in the 80s or 90s -- with getting defensive stop after defensive stop. So we have to go back to that, understand who we are. Because the last few games, that's not who we are.

"For us to do damage here in the Eastern Conference, that's the type of team we have to be. It's gotta come from everybody. We all have to look at each other in the mirror, it's not just one particular person -- it's the starters starting out, it's the guys on the bench, it's a team game. We gotta take it personal as a team and go out there and do something about it."

Garnett, the anchor of this defense, remains unfailingly confident that this team can rebuild its eroded identity.

"It's what we are," Garnett said. "We'll get better as the year goes on. I have all the confidence in that we will get better."

It's hard to imagine the Celtics getting worse. But if they want to accomplish their lofty goals, they have no choice but to reconstruct that defensive I.D.