“Brandon’s special,” Sullinger said. “He’s a special type of player. He takes defense seriously. He can guard one through four — one through five, excuse me.”
Sullinger meant to say his teammate can guard every position on the floor, from point guards (ones) to centers (fives), but it’s OK that Sullinger left one out. Just a few years ago, many scouts thought Bass could only defend zeroes — as in, nobody, no matter the position.
It’s different now. As Brad Stevens has juggled lineup combinations in his first season as head coach of the Boston Celtics, Bass has been the backbone of the rookie coach’s defense. It wasn’t just his huge block of Dion Waiters‘ layup attempt that would have tied the game in the waning seconds of Boston’s 103-100 loss on Saturday that served as the latest reminder. It was the way the play developed before the block came about.
Cavs coach Mike Brown set up a play for point guard Kyrie Irving to get the ball off a staggered screen on the right side, but with the Celtics switching picks on the perimeter, Waiters got the ball against Bass and thought he had a mismatch. Waiters drove down the left side of the foul lane and jumped into Bass, trying to draw a foul. But Bass went straight up and rejected Waiters’ double-pump fadeaway layup to effectively seal the win for Boston.
Brown and Stevens both credited Bass’ ability to stand with a smaller, quicker guard not just on that play but throughout the game. That versatility has made Bass a Stevens favorite. He has mixed it up with Zach Randolph and Roy Hibbert down low and chased Carmelo Anthony around the perimeter on odd nights all season. The Celtics routinely switch pick-and-rolls when Bass is involved, confident he can stay with an opposing ballhandler.
Proving that numbers aren’t perfect, the advanced statistics have yet to reflect Bass’ obvious improvement. The Celtics give up one point more per 100 possessions when Bass is on the court than off, which technically makes him a minus defender. What that number doesn’t take into account is every Celtics player’s constantly evolving role and the various lineup combinations Stevens has experimented with, nor does it note the bonus points Bass and Sullinger get for playing against taller, heavier defenders. Neither of the Celtics’ starting bigs is taller than 6-foot-9, which means at least one is playing out of position on virtually every possession.
The Celtics’ coaches, players and close observers recognize these realities, though, which is why Bass is developing a rep as a physical and pesky defender. Not that Bass is preoccupied with what people think.
“I’ve tried to play [good] defense every year,” Bass said. “If it opens some eyes, cool. If not, cool. But I have a defensive mindset every single time I step on the basketball court.”
Whether it’s a coincidence or a cause, Bass’ emergence has happened as his role has expanded. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce aren’t around to dictate role players’ responsibilities and coach Doc Rivers, for all his coaching wisdom, pigeonholed players like Bass, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry into roles they clearly were not comfortable with. Now that Bass is expected to do more than just knock down a couple of jump shots and not screw up things defensively, he’s blossomed into a team leader.
“This year, everything has just been different,” Bass said. “I’ve been able to show different things. Different system, different players, it’s cool that I can succeed in different scenarios. I just want to continue to help my teammates in any way I can and hopefully get us some wins.”
Bass still isn’t a flawless defender and most likely never will be. Until the stats start to match the eye test, Bass probably won’t get the recognition he deserves around the league as a reliable defensive four. But even if it takes a while for reputation to match reality, it has become clear this improvement isn’t just some brief fluke. There’s no going back for Bass now.
“I don’t know when that light clicks for guys,” Stevens said. “Sometimes, it clicks in a certain matchup. Then, for the rest of their careers, they’re pretty good.”