Can a stifling defense make up for an average-at-best offense? That's what the Boston Celtics are trying to find out after losing All-Star point guard and offensive quarterback Rajon Rondo for the season.
Early numbers are encouraging: Over the three games since Rondo was lost for the season with a torn ACL, Boston has posted a defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of a measly 87.9. The closest team during that span (Washington, surprisingly) is 6½ points worse. The Magic team that Boston defeated on Friday night for its third consecutive win? They have a defensive rating of 115 over their past three games (27.1 points worse than Boston in that span).
By shifting Courtney Lee to a starting role alongside Avery Bradley, Boston has paired its top defensive guards alongside veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The starting five took a second jolt when recently elevated rookie forward Jared Sullinger underwent season-ending back surgery on Friday, but Brandon Bass was one of the league's top individual defenders by season's end last year and shouldn't compromise that defensive focus.
Boston's core starters are a rather relentless group hell-bent on making life miserable for opposing offenses. It starts with Bradley and Lee, playfully nicknamed The Pitbulls, who have ramped up their on-ball pressure in hopes of preventing opponents from getting into their sets early and driving down quality looks.
It's working. Over the past three games, opponents have shot a mere 39.2 percent against Boston while scoring just 82 points per game. Boston is taking pressure off its own offense by limiting opponents' output.
The necessary asterisk here is that two of Boston's three wins came against one of the worst teams in each conference (Sacramento and Orlando), but also included a gritty double-overtime triumph over the East-leading Miami Heat.
Boston will get a better gauge of whether defense can truly keep this team afloat when the Los Angeles Clippers and their highlight-reel offense invade TD Garden for a Sunday matinee (1 p.m., NBA TV).
The Clippers own an offensive rating of 106.3 this season and throttled Boston 106-77 during the team's first meeting back in late December. Los Angeles has been without its own star point guard, Chris Paul, due to a bruised right kneecap that's sidelined him the past six games, but the Clippers are deep enough to offer a true measuring stick for Boston in this post-Rondo/Sullinger world.
And with the trade deadline three weeks away, Sunday's game might start pushing Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge in one of two potential directions. Will Boston be a buyer at the deadline, looking for additional talent to help offset the loss of Rondo and Sullinger? Or will the Celtics start looking to the future and bring in younger players?
Coach Doc Rivers and his players were adamant on Friday that their goals have not changed. Both Rivers and Ainge suggested this is an opportunity for others to step up. And after much of the roster underperformed over the first half of the season, this brief three-game stretch has offered some encouraging signs that some of those underachievers are ready to step forward.
The Celtics don't really have any other choice.
Maybe the most encouraging recent sign for Boston is that the first unit's defensive intensity has trickled down to a reserve group that's provided a much-needed boost. Over the past three games, Boston's best five-man defensive unit has featured Leandro Barbosa, Jason Terry and Jeff Green paired with Pierce and Garnett. In an admittedly small sample of 18 minutes together (still the second most-used lineup during that span), opponents owned a defensive rating of a minuscule 64.6 and shot 28.6 percent against that unit. If the Celtics can get that sort of production from a reserve-heavy lineup when Bradley and Lee are on the bench, that bodes particularly well for the team.
For the season, the Celtics rank sixth in defensive rating (99.8). Hone in on per-possession numbers logged by Synergy Sports data, and Boston is eighth, allowing 0.9 points per play and jumps up to third best in the league in half-court sets in which that per-play number shrinks to 0.845.
The question is whether Boston's offense can do enough to make its defensive efforts stand up. The Celtics rank 23rd in offensive rating at 99.8 (it seems largely appropriate that a team that's 23-23 overall has matching offensive and defensive ratings at the moment). Boston's offense was rather mediocre even with Rondo, but the Celtics hope increased contributions throughout the roster help offset the loss of their primary playmaker.
Zoom in on per-possession numbers and Synergy has Boston at 14th overall in the league averaging 0.921 points per play. The Celtics have been forced to reinvent themselves a bit offensively without Rondo, but their per-play numbers have actually climbed a tiny bit the past three games.
Pundits want to scream and shout about whether the Celtics are better without Rondo. It's a preposterous notion considering his all-around talents. But that's not to say the Celtics can't succeed without him. They're not winning because they are better; they are simply finding different ways to win.
It starts with all 12 guys contributing on defense and the trickle-down effect will be felt on offense, especially if all 12 available bodies are looking to pick up the slack in Rondo's absence.
"We've just got to keep building, each and every day," said Celtics captain Pierce. "We've got a number of guys who definitely know what we've got in this locker room still, from top to bottom. We still have a lot of talent at the guard and the big position. But it's just about us coming together collectively and that's what we've been able to do. Hopefully, we can continue to do that. It's going to come from a number of guys, and we understand that and we've just got to keep it going."