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Irish Coffee: Celtics succeed one possession at a time

Wake up with the Celtics [1] and your daily dose of Irish Coffee ‘€¦


Over the weekend, I stumbled across a New York Times article [2] that claimed Derrick Rose [3] is a better defender than Rajon Rondo [4], based on the individual statistical analysis of points allowed per possession:

Rose has allowed just 0.77 points per possession overall on defense this season, an elite mark for any defender, regardless of position. Chris Paul [5] (0.86 points per possession allowed), Rajon Rondo (0.83 PPP allowed), and Russell Westbrook [6] (0.92 PPP allowed) ‘€“- all excellent defenders -‘€“ have been trumped statistically this year, and by no slim margin. Rose has each of those players handily beat, and boasts a shockingly comprehensive defensive profile.

My natural reaction: How do I get my hands on these points per possession (PPP) statistics? It turns out Synergy Sports Technology tracks every possession [7] — offensively and defensively — for every NBA player. On both sides of the ball, a team or player’s possessions are broken down into 11 categories: 1. isolations, 2. pick-and-rolls (ball-handler), 3. post-ups, 4. pick-and-rolls (roll man), 5. spot-ups, 6. off screens, 7. handoffs, 8. cuts, 9. offensive rebounds, 10. transitions and 11. all other plays.

Obviously, a player’s PPP offensively doesn’t account for the quality of the pass he’s receiving or the look he’s getting, but it’s a great tool to determine how well he’s performing overall and on which plays he’s succeeding.

Likewise, a player’s PPP allowed defensively doesn’t account for the quality of his help defense or who he’s defending, but it’s an accurate representation of whether or not he’s stopping his assignment as well as on what plays he’s being beaten.

Let’s first break down how efficient the Celtics have been offensively as a team; the first number is where they rank in the league in terms of PPP, and the percentage reflects how often they run each play:

BREAKDOWN: The (great) success of the Celtics’ offense is a representation of Rondo’s game. Thanks to his speed and sight, the C’s point guard is best in transition. In the halfcourt, he can find the open man cutting to the basket, coming off the screen or isolating in the post.

Because of Rondo’s inability to knock down jump shots on a consistent basis, teams aren’t afraid of him as a scorer on the pick-and-roll and thus can concentrate on the roll man. The two biggest surprises here — their success on the offensive glass and their struggle spot-up shooting — can also be somewhat explained by Rondo’s strengths and weaknesss, respectively.

Now, let’s take a look at where the Celtics rank defensively in terms of PPP allowed as a team:

BREAKDOWN: The Celtics’ defense is nearly as efficient as their offense. They can stop the pick-and-roll. They shut down cutters and spot-up shooters in addition to defending well in isolation and in the post. How should teams attempt to beat the C’s? Get out in transition, crash the offensive glass and run guys off screens — the exact reasons the Magic have had so much success against the Celtics over the last few years.

Now, delving deeper into these statistics, let’s examine the PPP strengths and weaknesses of the C’s top-six rotation players on both ends of the court …



BREAKDOWN: Ranking among the league’s top-10 performers in five offensive sets, Pierce has been remarkable offensively. The funny thing is, though, that the two weakest parts of his offensive game this season — as a spot-up shooter and in isolation — are the two things he does most often. And if you’ve ever wondered why the Celtics always isolate Pierce for game-winning shot attempts, this will only make you more frustrated.


BREAKDOWN: You can succeed if you post Pierce up or spot up against him as he helps defensively. But as a one-on-one perimeter defender or chasing guys around screens, Pierce has performed admirably this season.



BREAKDOWN: Allen knows what he does best. Almost 55 percent of the time, he spots up for open 3-pointers, or he knocks down shots off screens — and he’s one of the best in the league at both. He ranks no lower than 62nd in any offensive set, and he only puts himself in those one-on-one isolation situations five percent of the time.


BREAKDOWN: How often do you hear about Allen’s defense? At 34th overall, it’s been phenomenal this season. His knowledge about coming off screens offensively serves him well in that area defensively. Unfortunately, he can’t say the same about his ability to get out on spot-up shooters. Also, one-on-one defense has been Allen’s biggest struggle this year. Has he lost a step since his prime? Sure, but he makes up for it with his head.



BREAKDOWN: Are opponents underestimating Shaq this season? You betcha. As Rondo and Pierce drive to the basket, Shaq is cutting to the hoop, too, and defenders are leaving him opens; hence, all the lobs. The C’s center is also getting good looks in the post and banging the offensive glass. Most surprisingly, though, is his success in transtion. That’s a true reflection of Shaq’s focus and drive this season.


BREAKDOWN: There are only two real options for the guys Shaq’s defending this season — post him up, or step out and shoot over him. Neither has worked well against him. In terms of production per possession on both ends of the court, Shaq has been the Celtics best player this season. Remarkable. He should be the Eastern Conference’s backup center in the All-Star game. There, I said it.



BREAKDOWN: Whether he’s running the floor in transition or posting up in the halfcourt, Garnett has been most successful around the basket. On the perimeter, he hasn’t enjoyed nearly as much production. He knocks down that open shot from 17-20 feet, but the Celtics would be better served if he pinned his defender in the post.


BREAKDOWN: His one-on-one defensive struggles are surprising, for sure. But consider that Garnett’s greatest strengths on the defensive end are his ability to communicate and help his teammates when they get beat. Those are both emphasized by the fact that he’s the best pick-and-roll defender in the league.



BREAKDOWN: Not good. Not good at all. There’s no shock about how poorly Rondo ranks as a spot-up shooter, but his inability to score in transition is a bit surprising. If you’ll notice, in the open court, Rondo is always looking for the assist; perhaps he’s worried his opponents will send him to the free-throw line if he finishes more often.


BREAKDOWN: The majority of the time, if Rondo’s opponents are looking to score against him, they’ll run the pick-and-roll, and the Celtics point guard has had decent success in defending it. Twenty-one percent of his defensive assignments’ points come from spot-up shooting, and that’s a good thing — considering the ball needs to be out of the hands of the opposing team’s point guard for that to happen.

Still, you’d expect his overall rank to be higher, considering he’s a returning All-Defensive First Team selection. But maybe that’s just a reflection of how good the NBA’s point guards are.



BREAKDOWN: Davis has not been a productive spot-up shooter this season; yet, he relies on that play more than any other. That’s got to be particularly frustrating for Doc Rivers [13], especially in lieu of the fact that Davis has been so successful when he posts up his defender or takes him one-on-one. The C’s Sixth Man could also improve his transition offense.


BREAKDOWN: This is precisely why Davis is so valuable to the Celtics. He can shut down the pick-and-roll nearly as well as Garnett, and he can defend the block nearly as well as Shaq. This also goes to show you that numbers aren’t everything, considering Davis ranks higher than Garnett in points allowed per possession, and nobody would argue he’s better defensively. Still, there’s plenty to take from the statistical evidence.

(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’€™s Irish Coffee or a future mailbag? Send an e-mail to brohrbach@weei.com [14] or a Twitter message to @brohrbach [15].)