Simply put, the Celtics were dreadful on the defensive glass last season. Their overall lack of size led to a 29th-place finish in defensive rebounding percentage. Too frequently, we witnessed 24 seconds of hard-nosed Celtic defense, only to see it nullified by an easy second-chance putback. Those forfeited extra points and possessions were backbreaking. Playing the downshifted small-ball lineup with Jae Crowder at the power forward spot consequently left Boston undersized at all five positions. Chicago and Washington dominated the glass battle in the first two series of the playoffs in the spring. In those series, the Bulls and Wizards posted offensive rebounding percentages of 29.6 and 30.0, respectively.
There was warranted skepticism about Danny Ainge’s response to the apparent rebounding problem this summer. The roster lacks traditional heft. Aron Baynes is the lone conventional center on the roster, and even he stands shorter than seven feet. At this point, Al Horford prefers playing around the perimeter. Somehow Markieff Morris took all of the rebounding DNA and yielded none to brother Marcus. Our twin has an underwhelming 8.9 career rebounding percentage, an unsettling statistic for a conventional power forward. We were dubious about the rookie “bigs,” each of whom lack traditional forward and center characteristics.
Despite all of these supposed hindrances, Boston is turning it around.
While we are just eight games into the young season, the ship appears to have been righted. The Celtics are 4th in defensive rebounding percentage and 5th in limiting second-chance points, per NBA.com Stats.
The realization that the Celtics are getting contributions from all five positions has headlined this resurgence, and it has been easy to notice the concerted effort to rebound as a team. No Celtic is ranked inside the top 60 players in rebounding percentage. Their collective effort is overshadowing any individual dominance, which the team and fanbase should take pride in. Boston remains one of the shortest teams in the league, yet they’ve dominated the glass against some of the longest rosters, most notably the 76ers, Bucks, and Spurs.
Compared to recent years, Boston’s roster offers more length and athleticism at positions 1 through 4.
Last season, the shortest backcourt duo in the NBA with Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley burdened the Celtics. Now, Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown offer more wingspan and positional versatility, and their collective effort to assist the Celtic bigs has made a profound impact on securing missed shots. Their combined defensive rebounding percentage (25.5%) is edging IT and Bradley’s output from last season (23.2%). We’ve never seen Kyrie defend at this high of a caliber, apart from the 2016 Finals series. He appears dedicated to banishing any skeptics who distrust his defensive skills. This year’s small-ball lineup, which may eventually include Morris, lacks conventional front-court bulk, but Boston should continue to deploy plenty of added length along the perimeter.
Marcus Smart (4.3 RPG) and Terry Rozier (5.0 RPG) have grown into a menacing bench duo, capable of disrupting opposing ball handlers. They’re relentlessly crashing the glass, with Tito maximizing his leaping abilities and Smart channeling the added quickness he gained in the offseason. Defensively, their instincts have always been top notch, but fans should be particularly refreshed by the newfound aptitude to dominate the glass.
Along the wing, the Celtics became rangier and more quick footed. Jayson Tatum is proving that he’s a capable stretch four, adding 7.4 boards per 36 minutes. His long frame and athleticism allow him gobble up missed shots that seem impossibly out of reach. His rebounding ability has made it easier for the Celtics to toggle him between the small and power forward spots.
Horford is having a resurgent rebounding season. His 9.1 boards per game is his highest average since 2012. It’s somewhat remarkable. In a time where Horford is constantly defending players three or four inches taller, he remains a stable anchor on the backline. It has been a completely unexpected highlight in his game.
Stevens has his players working like a machine to complete defensive possessions. Over the past few seasons, we became accustomed to watching opponents slip behind Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko to grab rebounds. This year, Boston has returned to fundamentals. Every player is boxing out an opponent, regardless of matchup and size. With multiple players crashing the defensive glass, any non-corralled misses are tipped or deflected to teammates to try to keep rebounds alive. They’re ranked 4th in the NBA in contested rebound percentage, per NBA.com.
The lone aberration game came against New York. The Knicks edged a win in the rebounding battle, 51-50, and were able to grab 11 offensive boards. Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter are exceptional at creating second-chance opportunities. However, hitting the glass is the only thing that the Knicks are able to do well, and Boston controlled the score for the entire game.
The ability to limit extra possessions can be a difference maker. For example, Boston didn’t significantly outplay San Antonio in Monday’s blowout win. The Spurs won the turnover battle and shot better from distance, but the Celtics were +11 on the boards. By minimizing second-chance opportunities against a team with textbook offensive execution, the Cs were able to dictate the pace in the second half. It’s astounding that Boston’s interior defense and rebounding have become major weapons.
Boston is off to a blazing start. But in the aggregate, it’s hard to bet that they will sustain this level of rebounding success over an entire regular season. They don’t have the makeup or size to remain a top-tier rebounding team, but they are starting to solve their most pronounced weakness—a promising achievement for a team that is still learning to coexist together.
All non-cited statistics are from basketballreference.com
All salary information is from realgm.com