Considering all the criticism the Celtics have heard this season about their lackluster performance on the defensive end of the floor, it was refreshing for the C's to come out tonight, on the tail end of a back-to-back no less, and silence the Philadelphia 76ers for a convincing win at the TD Garden.
It begins and ends with defense for this team, and it always has. Tonight, it was the D that set the tone, and it was the D that finished the deal for a 92-79 win.
"When you shoot 53 percent and you hold a team to 39 percent, you’re going to win the game," Doc Rivers said postgame. "Our shooting, our ball movement, was wonderful, but our defense was why we won. I thought the first half -- going zone, going man, and going back and forth -- was good for us. When you play defense like that, you usually win games."
The Celtics have gotten a lot of flak this past month for their inconsistent effort on D. Six times in their first 14 games, they allowed their opponents to score over 100 points, and unsurprisingly they went 1-5 in those games (the only win was over Orlando, in overtime). Boston's ranks among the NBA's 30 teams in defensive efficiency over the last six seasons read as follows: first, second, fifth, first, first... and 11th. One of these things is not like the other.
So after witnessing the precipitous decline in the Celtics' prowess on D for most of this season, it would be foolish to say one game has changed everything. But it's certainly a step in the right direction, and the guys in the C's locker room are taking notice.
"I don't want to say that," Kevin Garnett said when asked if the team had turned a corner defensively. "I want to see how we are these next four, five games first. We'll see if we can put a nice defensive stand together, then I can come back with a more accurate answer. But for right now, we're just trying to take this thing one day at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time, and be more consistent with what we're doing."
The emphasis, as it's been constantly over the last five-plus seasons, has been on Garnett on the defensive end. He anchors everything -- the way he communicates, the way he rotates to help his teammates, the way he defends the rim when called upon, all of it is crucial if the Celtics are to boast a championship-level defense. But it can't just be Garnett. This year's team has shown a troublesome dependence on KG this season, often letting up big scoring bursts the moment he comes off the floor. The question is whether the supporting cast around KG can come around, and it looks like there's hope on that front.
"I think so," Paul Pierce said. "Guys are understanding the schemes a lot better. The good thing about it is over the last week or so, we've simplified things in our pick-and-roll defense. I think we're doing a better job in that aspect now. We're doing a good job for the guards by rotating. That's the biggest part of the defense, when the bigs are helping the guards and the weak-side guards are rotating. That's tremendous for our defense. We're hustling, we're working hard, nobody's walking out there, and everybody's on the same page."
The Celtics' backcourt hasn't been at full strength this season, with Rajon Rondo missing a few games due to injury and suspension, plus Avery Bradley still mending from shoulder surgery. It's been a team effort to make ends meet anyway. It hasn't been easy, especially against the pick-and-roll, which happens to be the bread and butter play in today's NBA.
But tonight, facing a team led by a lightning-quick guard in Jrue Holiday who thrives in pick-and-roll situations, the C's stepped up and kept the Sixers out of their element. Holiday struggled mightily, shooting 4-of-13 and getting to the line only twice.
"We're being more aggressive on the ball," Jeff Green said. "We're not allowing guys to turn the corner, and I think we allowed guys to do that a lot at the start of the season. We've just got to continue what we're doing and continue to be aggressive on the ball."
"The pick-and-roll defense has improved dramatically," added Rivers. "Our rotations still are not [all the way] there, but they’re much better. Our pressuring the ball -- without Avery, we've just kind of backed off of that. So I know that's an area we’re going to get way better. Because when he does it, everyone does it, and that helps your team. Right now it’s just hard to do."
The Celtics may not be at their best defensively, but they're working at it. Certainly, they have aspirations higher than 11th-best in the NBA, and if history is any indicator, they'll soon be better. Tonight was a step in that direction.