By Reinis Lacis (@LamarMatic)
That 1997-98 Celtics team overachieved. Pitino made so many preseason moves that they started with just three incumbents (Antoine Walker, Dee Brown and Dana Barros) and played 19 different guys in all, but they still finished 36-46 with a group of rookies and castoffs, as well as Antoine shooting 42 percent, making 292 turnovers and offending approximately 572 officials as their crunch-time guy. Before the Chauncey Billups trade, they had one really nice pressing unit: two athletic rookies (Billups and Ron Mercer), young Bruce Bowen, Walter McCarty (the best cog in the history of Pitino’s press, as the coach told you) and either Travis Knight or Andrew DeClercq (two agile, coachable and extremely pale big men). This group wreaked havoc a few times.
That’s Bill Simmons characterizing the 1997-98 Boston Celtics in an old ESPN Gladwell-Simmons article after Malcolm Gladwell suggested that more basketball teams should use the full-court press.
Those 97-98 Celtics are the last NBA team to employ the press to such a heavy degree. Boston recorded 12.0 steals per game for the season, the third best mark in league history according to Basketball-Reference. Only the trapping 1993-94 Seattle Supersonics of George Karl and John MacLeod’s tough 77-78 Phoenix Suns stole the ball more often than Pitino’s Suns on a per game basis.
Mind you that Pitino’s team played in the slowest NBA era ever. It averaged 93.3 possessions per game, while those late 70s Suns ran for a good 111.4, per Basketball-Reference.
You can also look at it the following way. Stats.NBA.com has the Celtics leading the league in pace at 96.11 in 1997-98 (NBA.com uses data of possessions precisely counted up for, however, Basketball-Reference determines their pace data based on an algorithm, which makes for a slight difference in their numbers). If they had played in 2015-16, they would have been the 23rd fastest team. Last year’s fastest team, the Sacramento Kings, recorded six possessions more per game (102.24).
Thus the Celtics really are the 2nd best team in steals in NBA history, trailing the aforementioned Sonics in steals per game adjusted to pace (Seattle has six out of the 21 teams who have averaged more than 10 steals per game in a pace slower than 100 possessions per game).
As Simmons already explained, it was a decent bet by Pitino to increase the chances of winning for a mediocre roster.
How can you score more than the opponent when you have inferior players? Have more opportunities to score the ball. The 97-98 Celtics averaged the most field goal attempts per game in the league at 84.6. Miraculously, they also gave up the least attempts as the opposition only attempted 72.9 FGAs.
That 11.7 difference is a direct result of them leading the league in steals and turnovers forced (20.6). One could think that the figure is large enough for the plan to actually succeed and vault the team over .500. Not quite.
Being so aggressive also leads to fouling (other obvious issues like opponents breaking the press and getting easy twos notwithstanding). Boston committed the second most personal fouls in the league and gave up the second most free throws. Not being the best at getting to the line themselves, they scored 7.6 less points from the free throw line per game than their opposition (17.4 for Boston, 25.0 for opponents).
So while their advantage in field goal attempts gave them a head-start of 26.7 more potential points (if their advantage in 2s and 3s taken equaled their prevalence in 2s and 3s made), the Celts lost much of that edge by awarding teams with the most open shot in basketball.
At that point their collective lack of talent wasn’t able to convert enough of their field goal attempts (Boston only made 45.7% of their twos, opponents were at 50.9%, obviously boosted by getting easier looks whenever they didn’t turn the ball over) to allow them to come out on the top of this transaction.
Thus you can summarize that even if Pitino’s plan to create more potential points for his team was somewhat sound (once upon a time he also started the 3-point revolution – his 1988-89 Knicks attempted 14.0 3s per game, only two teams had attempted more than 8.0 3s per game before that), the numbers landed them in the wrong spot.
You might need a more talented team (which might have not wanted to press for 82 games though) to capitalize on the edge in FGAs. Perhaps, the press needed to be toned down to lessen the number of fouls committed (which in turn might cause a drop in steals made). Only pressing when your reserves are in also sounds like a possible solution to exploit opposing bench players.
Either way, you can watch the footage for yourself and see how Rick Pitino’s Celtics pressure defense looked in reality. The following is a compilation of a 1997-98 game between the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics. The video contains each time Boston employed the press.
Some notes, data and thoughts:
The Celtics pressed 32 times, which amounts to using this tactic about every third possession. They almost always pressed after made field goals and free throw attempts.
Boston forced 24 turnovers in the game, good for their 7th best turnover-forcing game of their season and for Chicago’s worst game in ball security.
This was one of the more successful pressing performances by the Celts as already evidenced by the number of Bulls turnovers. On possessions during which Boston pressed the Bulls only scored 29 points. Thus they only scored 90.62 points per 100 possessions against the press. That would be the worst offense in the league in 1997-98 (Golden State held this dishonor at 92.7, Chicago was 12th at 104.1).
The Celtics scored 13 points as a direct result of turnovers by the Bulls against the press (one of them being a free throw thanks to a Phil Jackson technical foul).
The full-court press got broken down rather easily by good perimeter players, which probably is something painfully obvious and is the reason why it isn’t employed more often in the NBA in the first place.
That being said, I’d take any chance I get of a player, who is rather uncomfortable handing the ball, being forced to make decisions against the press. For that reason Pitino’s Celtics front the two primary threats before the ball gets inbounded (see the image below). Once it was Luc Longley trying to make a play in the open court (0:19), Boston forced a lot of mistakes.
It puts a ton of pressure on your bigs. The Bulls pulled off a few over-head passes for those same fronted players after nifty cuts. Once that cut is made and the pass is in the air, it’s either Travis Knight recklessly coming up higher as the last man back and trying to intercept the floating pass or him staying back and facing someone like Michael Jordan.
The reception of the second pass seems to be the key moment. If the ball is inbounded to one of the guards, the big (in this case Antoine Walker) who covered the inbounds pass is ready to leave his man and trap the ball handler upon any movement on his part. If you successfully pass it to a capable guard, the defense is toast against a 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 fast break. However, force that pass to be made to a plodding center and your chances of creating chaos increases mightily.
I came away with the impression that you should, in general, lighten the pressure for this to work. Andrew DeClercq chasing Dennis Rodman into the back-court and getting overthrown shouldn’t happen (at 2:08). Letting Rodman catch the ball as the guards are devoured should be the point:
The whole mindset of being a full-court press team creates an environment where too many daring risks are taken. Four Celtics lose their mind here and just randomly trap after a missed field goal, only for Ron Harper to score an and-1 on the other end (at 8:19):
Approaching it like a “killing of the shot clock” device was by far my favorite use of the press. If a good ball handler manages to receive the ball off the inbounds pass, don’t automatically double team him (unless he ends up in a bad spot like one of the corners or alongside the sideline right after the half-court line). Squeeze every second out of his trip up the floor by guarding him close one-on-one and having the next teammate in a place from which he can immediately trap to create an illusion that he has to walk the ball up carefully.
Possessions where Bulls got into their stuff with about 14 seconds left on the shot clock, while guys like Bruce Bowen hounded them one-on-one created problems for Chicago. (5:19 is a good example):
Lastly, just a general thought of mine is that full-court pressure with traps is less likely to work in today’s day and age. Teams in the 90s offered plenty of targetable players for the defense as teams trotted out lineups with two bigs who would be considered centers nowadays or wings who really would be power forwards now. There probably are options to be explored here like having your reserves do this from time to time or the idea I explained in the previous bullet point. Heck, playoff series like last year’s Heat – Hornets had coaches do similar things as Josh Richardson and Nicolas Batum pressured ball handlers to knock off precious seconds of the clock. However, I think it’s safe to say that we won’t see madness like this Pitino team in the near future.
Do you think Chicago could’ve faired well if Pippen played in that game?
Yeah, they probably would have been better off if Pippen was there. His passing and ball-handling is something they didn’t have on their bench. Put him out there with Harper, Jordan and/or Kukoc and Chicago would just have too many talented players not to out-play the zone. Moreover, Steve Kerr was injured as well and thus Rusty LaRue was fifth in minutes on their team. And, that’s no disrespect to LaRue, but he simply shouldn’t be such a big part of the rotation for those 90s Bulls teams.