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Celtics' heart shows in transition defense

For the past three seasons, the Boston Celtics ranked dead last in offensive rebound percentage, subscribing to a theory that the team benefited more from getting set on defense than chasing second-chance opportunities. Maybe that’s why it’s so striking to find Boston in the top 10 for offensive rebound percentage this season.

The joke, of course, is that the Celtics are missing so many shots this year that it’s only natural they’d see an uptick in offensive caroms. But the truth is that Boston’s transition defense has progressed so well that coach Brad Stevens can enable his bigs to go for second-chance opportunities without fear of allowing points at the other end.

Consider this: The Boston Celtics rank fifth in the league in transition defense this season, according to data logged by Synergy Sports. Of the top 15 teams in the league in transition defense, 14 of them are playoff bound, with the Celtics the only outlier.

Boston’s placement defies logic. Teams with poor transition defense usually reside at the bottom of the league standings, unless their half-court sets are stingy enough to make up for it, which is how Boston operated in past seasons. Of the 11 worst transition defenses in the league this season, nine comprise a who’s who of lottery-bound squads and the two playoff hopefuls are teams currently clinging to the final spots in their conferences (Dallas, Atlanta).

Often needing second-chance opportunities to just hang around in games given their often-anemic half-court offense, the Celtics have been able to flip their script because of their strides in transition defense.

“I think my biggest thing, personally, is that you have to balance [offensive rebounding] well with transition defense,” Stevens said. “Transition defense, you can’t give up on that. That has to be a huge part of what you do. Right now, our transition defense has gotten significantly better in the last two months and, overall, been pretty good. Really since [Rajon] Rondo has been back we’ve been pretty good.”

In the 28 games that Boston has played since Rondo returned on Jan. 17, the Celtics are allowing only 1.007 points per play in transition, according to Synergy data. That number would lead the league by a fair margin if maintained. (Indiana is tops for the season at 1.053.)

One area the Celtics have found success is causing giveaways in transition. Boston generates turnovers on a league-best 15 percent of transition opportunities.

It’s not hard to see Rondo’s impact there. The point guard is one of the key players in Boston’s transition defense, often tasked with picking up the ball-handler and forcing him to make a quick decision on the break.

The Celtics appear to do a good job on the basics of transition defense, often trying to get a guard to stop the ball, while a big fills the lane and a wing picks up another body.

It also comes down to pure hustle, and when you’ve got someone like Kris Humphries busting his tail to get back into a play or racing for a chasedown block, that’s infectious.

The Celtics have aided their cause by driving down their own turnover rate. Fewer giveaways means fewer transition opportunities. Think back to a lopsided loss to Golden State earlier this month in Boston, when the Celtics’ sloppiness ignited a Warrior layup line. The Celtics’ turnover rate is 15.3 percent since the All-Star break, down from 16.1 percent before the break. There still are strides to be made there, but Rondo’s presence has aided the process.

Even Stevens admits that offensive rebounding has become a necessity for his team, particularly when the Celtics have players such as Jared Sullinger and Humphries, who have a nose for offensive caroms.

“Offensively, there’s going to be games when you’re not making shots and if you can get a putback or two to kind of stem the tide, it’s important,” Stevens said. “And we do have guys, especially in Humphries and Sullinger, that are really good offensive rebounders and you certainly don’t want to take that away from those guys.

“Anything we can do to get a basket, I think we need to try to do it.”

Stevens noted that the Celtics’ transition defense is still a work in progress. The biggest key is really just getting his guys comfortable enough to react to situations, including when a big should chase an offensive rebound or what roles players occupy when falling back in transition.

“Every [team] does it a little bit differently, but on the shot, everybody needs to do their job,” Stevens said. “Then it’s about communicating, and we’re still not as good as we need to be at that. But we are getting better.”

The bottom line to Stevens is that the encouraging numbers on transition defense and on the offensive glass resonate for one reason: They show effort. Despite their season struggles, the Celtics are fighting for second-chance opportunities and hustling to get back on defense.

Stevens complimented his team on both aspects after Monday’s loss in Dallas and paused a bit when he realized who his next opponent was.

“I think it’s a good indicator that our team has been fairly good in transition -- knock on wood as we get ready to play Miami -- and very good on the glass,” Stevens said. “I think those are indicators that you are playing the game the right way from an effort standpoint.”

The Heat feast on transition opportunities, ranking third in the league at 1.223 points per play. Former coach Doc Rivers used to implore his players to throw the ball seven rows deep into the crowd rather than give the Heat a chance off a turnover.

But Boston can most certainly build off its play in Dallas. The Mavericks rank fourth in transition offense, but didn’t generate a single transition basket over the first three 37 minutes of Monday’s game, missing two shots and committing two turnovers on four transition opportunities over the first three quarters. Dallas finished with only four points in six transition chances (0.667 points per play).

Yes, in a transition year, Boston’s progress with transition defense remains one of the biggest positives.