This? This, midway through the third quarter of a one-possession game, is not how you become a good defensive team in the age of the 3-point shot.
I don’t know if you know this, but 3-pointers are worth more than 2’s.
Despite giving up 118 points to the Nuggets on Wednesday night, the Celtics still own the NBA’s best defensive rating, thanks in large part to their ability to defend the 3-point line, where teams are now attempting roughly a third of their shots. So, I went in search of an answer to the question: What’s the secret to the C’s 3-point defensive success?
The answer boils down to the obvious: Effort.
Surely it’s more nuanced than that. There’s length and athleticism, which the Celtics have in spades. There’s scouting — who shoots well, where they like to shoot from, how they like to shoot it (off the dribble, coming around a screen or camped out in the corner). And there’s coaching — drilling the importance of it so far into their subconscious that they can’t help but find Stephen Curry sprinting to the right arc in transition or get their left arm extended toward Klay Thompson’s right hand on a switch.
But, yeah, most of it comes down to effort — fighting through screens and closing out on shooters in hopes of running them off the line or throwing off their rhythm for even a fraction of a second. If it were all about talent, then the Celtics wouldn’t have ranked among the best five 3-point defensive teams each season Brad Stevens has been in Boston, because God Shammgod knows they haven’t been this talented five years running.
YEAR: OPP. 3PM | OPP. 3P%
2017-18: 9.0 (2nd) | 33.8% (2nd)
2016-17: 9.0 (7th) | 33.2% (2nd)
2015-16: 7.8 (7th) | 33.6 % (4th)
2014-15: 7.4 (9th) | 33.6% (4th)
2013-14: 6.6 (5th) | 34.7% (5th)
“It’s effort, being conscious of scouting reports and knowing who shooters are, trying to make that extra effort to get to them,” Semi Ojeleye told Parquet Post. “You can’t really control if guys make shots, but you can get a hand up, and the stats show if you get a hand up, they’ll make less 3’s.”
That’s a rookie second-round pick speaking, so you know what Stevens is preaching about 3-point defense has trickled its way down the roster.
“It’s just effort,” third-year reserve guard Terry Rozier added, “knowing their tendencies, knowing if it’s a great 3-point shooting team, we’ve got to pay close attention to that, and make sure we run guys off the line.”
Just look at how hard Rozier works to contest a lightning-quick Curry 3:
The Suns example above is the extreme, but it shows the other end of the spectrum. Opponents are shooting 37.6 percent from 3 against Phoenix — only three teams are worse — and in turn they rank dead-last in defensive rating and own a bottom-five record. No effort, no results. That simple.
It’s not so easy to extract maximum effort from guys making eight-figure salaries, especially since the margin between faux effort and max effort often equates to a razor-thin difference in opposing 3-point percentage. It’s so thin that some experts disregard statistical anomalies as random.
Teams are shooting 3.2 percent worse than their averages against the Celtics this season, the largest discrepancy in the league, and yet less than a percentage point better than the next-best team. But two-thirds of the league are allowing teams to shoot their averages, give or take a single percentage point, so the Celtics have found an edge, slight as it may be.
During a presentation Stevens gave while still the coach at Butler, he listed “challenge your team statistically” as an effective motivating tool. For example, he stressed to his team the fact that, if they got just three more stops per game, their defensive field goal percentage would drop from 45 to 39 percent — from a middling defensive team to a great one.
The Celtics have targeted high-motor, high-IQ players for Stevens to mold, and that allows the Celtics to get even more nuanced, like stressing that corner 3’s are one of the most efficient shots in basketball, so by running opponents off those attempts, you can dock their percentage a point.
Add those together, and suddenly you’re allowing fewer corner 3-point shots than all but one team in the NBA, forcing less efficient attempts from above the break, where opponents are shooting a league-worst 32.1 percent on 21.6 attempts per game against you. These are your Celtics.
This may not sound like much, but take the Knicks, for example. They rank second behind the C’s in defending above-the-break 3’s, which is commendable, but they’re allowing 8.7 corner 3’s per game — almost twice as many as the Celtics and considerably more than every other team but the Hawks — and opponents are shooting 43.2 percent on those attempts.
As a result, the Celtics allow 8.9 fewer points per game from 3 than the Knicks. Considering New York is the second-best rim-protecting team, better than the C’s, you can point to this one aspect of the game — the recognition and effort to contest corner 3-point shooters — as the reason why the Knicks are a middling defensive outfit instead of an elite one.
Of course, it helps to have Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and their combined 14 feet of wingspan extending those pterodactyl wings out on the edges.
“I think what Danny [Ainge] has understood is this league is all about having a bunch of 6-7 guys who can switch and who can guard the perimeter,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told Bill Simmons on his podcast.
The Celtics also feature a handful of bulldogs — from Marcuses Smart and Morris to Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye and even Shane Larkin — who will hound you 30 feet from the basket. Al Horford is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who can guard inside and out, and while he may not look so mobile, Aron Baynes has been the NBA’s best 3-point defender this season (opponents shooting 6-of-34 from 3 against him, or 19.4 percent worse than their season averages). All in all, almost every Celtics rotation player is holding his opponents below their season 3-point percentages:
PLAYER: DFG% | FG% | DIFF%
Baynes: 16.0% | 35.8% | -19.8%
Morris: 25.0% | 35.2% | -10.2%
Smart: 27.6% | 37.2% | -9.6%
Larkin: 27.8% | 35.6% | -7.9%
Horford: 30.1% | 37.0% | -6.9%
Tatum: 33.0% | 37.0% | -4.0%
Brown: 34.0% | 37.0% | -3.0%
And when everyone around you is fighting through picks, swarming to the ball and running guys off the line, you better fall in line or risk minutes.
“I look at my teammates, too, guys like Smart, Jaylen, all the way down the line. Everybody plays defense,” Ojeleye told Parquet Post. “If you want to get out there, you have to kind of get with the program.”
The Warriors felt the full brunt of that defensive effort last month, when Curry and Thompson — the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history — combined for 5-of-20 shooting from distance in their 92-88 loss in Boston. It’s a recipe the Celtics have employed against them for years.
Here’s Horford hedging on a screen that was designed to free Thompson, allowing Tatum to recover in time to run him off the line, all while Smart never wavers against Curry on a solidly scripted play by the defending champions in a one-possession game during the final three minutes:
This article does a solid job illustrating how the Celtics’ increased defensive pressure on the perimeter against quality shooters last year forced opponents to rely more heavily on attempts from below-average shooters. In other words, fly out on Curry and Thompson at the expense of a wide-open Draymond Green 3. It could save you a point here or there, and you’re going to need every one you can get against the Warriors.
Here’s Brown and Ojeleye closing out on Thompson, as Horford rotates onto Curry in the corner, and Green is left wide open at the top of the key:
“Credit Boston’s defense,” said Magic coach Frank Vogel, whose team entered their game against the Celtics in early November as the league’s top 3-point shooting team, only to shoot a season-worst 6-of-29 against the C’s in a 16-point loss, “because they take you out of your stuff, your first action or your first look, and you have to be patient against that.”
Here’s Rozier stopping Magic forward Aaron Gordon at the 3-point line in transition andrecovering to contest Evan Fournier in the corner (those are two 40 percent 3-point shooters, by the way), which allowed Tatum to find Gordon and funnel him into a long jumper against a double team:
There’s another added benefit to that effort, too. Even when you can’t recover fast enough, and the opponents have worked the ball around for an open 3, they might rush their shot in anticipation of you coming.
“I think we benefited,” Stevens said after the Warriors game. “They missed some shots, some open looks, but I do think we guarded them hard, and maybe that has a cumulative effect at the end of the game.”
“Some games, you just miss open shots, but when you’re playing against a really good defensive team that challenges every shot, then the open ones are more difficult, if that makes sense,” added Kerr. “You can kind of feel in a game whether you’re going to get whatever you want or not, and Boston’s defense is excellent. They’ve done a great job.”
If you’re going to beat the Warriors, you’ve got to stop them from making 3’s. It may not happen this season, but maybe they’ll start to hear the footsteps, and we know this: If you’re shooting, the C’s are coming for you.