For the past three seasons, the San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics have been pillars of defensive excellence in the NBA. They’ve consistently managed to find victory by shutting down their opponent. The blueprint was always the same. Consistent terrific help on any perimeter penetration, effective, smothering doubles on post-players, and a persistent maintenance of defensive assignments.
And last night, all that got blown to hell.
Boston was the more egregious failure last night. Boston allowed 95.6 points per game this season, only to allow the Cavaliers, in Boston, to drop 124 on them. But as we often try and tell you, per game numbers are fools gold, especially talking about team offense and defense. Offensive and defensive efficiency is a calculation of the number of points allowed per estimated 100 possessions (a rough average used as a standardization). For an offense, more than 100 is okay, less than 100 is not good, anything better than 110 is terrific. For defense, obviously, you want to keep it low. Using this allows us to get a better feel for how teams perform regardless of pace. For example, no matter how good your defense is, you’re likely to give up more points to the Warriors because they play at a faster pace, which creates more possessions.
The Celtics had the fifth best defense by this measure this season, at 101.1. In Game 2, Boston allowed just a 91.5. Last night? 142.5. This is a ridiculous number. It’s absolutely absurd. You have to fail in every conceivable way, having no impact whatsoever on the defensive end, and lacking any significant cohesion in any facet of your defensive approach to hit that number. It was a stirring failure, one that has to leave Boston fans shaken. Despite the brilliance of LeBron James (and to be sure, James put on a clinic on how to excel with a good defender in your face), this performance was simply not worthy of a championship contender. It’s only one game, but even if the Celtics were to advance, you have to note this performance as a relevant moment in their season.
The Spurs’ failures were much less shocking. The Spurs allowed 96.3 points per game this season and gave up 110 to the Suns in Game 3. They had a defensive efficiency of 102 and allowed a 122. So it wasn’t as bad as the Celtics. Which is kind of like saying New Coke wasn’t as bad as accidentally inventing a new plague.
So what we have is two prolific defenses, rocked to their core by efficiency and overwhelming offense. Both teams had offensive efficiency above 105. They got the job done in that area. Defense wins championships, if that’s your mantra and you execute it. But last night, both of these contenders have relied on defense throughout their championship runs. And so far in the second round, they look like that foundation has been cracked.