When the Boston Celtics went on a 16-game win streak, it was on the strength of their defense. That was shocking for a couple of reasons. First, the Celtics have so many new players. Defense is largely built on continuity and being connected. When all five defenders are in sync, it makes it hard for opponents to gain traction. Beat one man, the next guy is there. Make the pass, the next guy is there. Boston’s ability to switch, jump-switch and switch back has been incredible all year.
The second reason the stellar defense is shocking is because outside of Al Horford and Marcus Smart, no one on the team is a notable defender. Guys like Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris are fine, but they aren’t even around the fringes of the All-Defense team. Most of the young players were relative unknowns on defense.
And then there is Kyrie Irving.
For all his talents on offense, and they are prodigious, Irving has always been ambivalent towards defense. On a good day, he’s engaged, but still not a plus defender. On a bad day, he doesn’t seem to care at all and is a straight up minus defender.
But during Boston’s good start, Irving seemed to have flipped a switch. He was active, executing the schemes and giving 100 percent effort. Over the last few weeks though, Irving has started to fall off. As he has, so has the defense as a whole. This could be because he’s tired, nicked up with injuries, or simply regressing back to his own personal mean as a defender. No matter what, it is hurting the Celtics.
That brings to mind an idea. I previously wrote that Morris should come off the bench full time. With Morris out, it might be time for Brad Stevens to consider something even more drastic: bringing either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum off the bench. Why, with the team sitting at 24-7, would Stevens even consider changing the role of the Celtics two prized youngsters?
There are a few reasons to consider such a big change. First is that Stevens is already making two different moves that would make the transition easier. Over the last few games, since Morris has been out, Stevens has tweaked the rotation. Semi Ojeleye comes off the bench no later than midway through the first quarter for Tatum. Tatum then returns later in the first quarter or early in the second and plays primarily with reserves for the next four to five minutes. In effect, Tatum has replaced Morris as the second unit scorer at the forward spot.
The second move Stevens has been making more and more often is to switch Irving off the opposing point guard and to give that defensive responsibility to Brown. As of late Irving has struggled to keep opposing point guards in front of him. He’s also getting stuck on screens and he’s not contesting aggressively if the opponent attacks him after the switch. Because of both of these things, the entire defense becomes stressed. Because the Celtics lack an eraser on the back end, any breakdowns tend to lead to something good for the opponent. To combat this, Stevens has been switching Brown onto the lead ball handler and moving Irving off the ball, in an attempt to Band-Aid the defense.
So, Boston has already changed the substitution pattern to play Tatum more with the reserves. And they’ve already changed up Irving’s defensive responsibility. That makes changing the starting lineup easier to swallow.
In addition, the Celtics’ bench has struggled to maintain leads all season. With Morris in and out of the lineup, they lack a consistent go-to scorer on reserve units. Terry Rozier tries, but he’s still very hit or miss. When he’s hot, he can get it going. When he’s not, it often ends in disaster.
Speaking of disaster, that term basically describes Marcus Smart’s season on offense to date. Smart is shooting just 31.8 percent from the field and 28 percent from behind the arc. All too often, he ends up taking the shots on the second unit, because outside of Rozier, no one else can create their own offense. Smart can get his own shot, which is great. But he rarely makes it, which is less great.
Without Morris, Boston needs someone to anchor that second unit as a scorer. Tatum or Brown can do that. Both have shown the ability to make plays throughout the year. At this point, the Celtics just need someone who can take the ball and score it with some regularity, so the starters don’t have to dig themselves out of holes game after game. Also, with Tatum showing some signs of hitting the rookie wall, playing against lesser defenders for more minutes might boost him back up.
The Celtics should slide Smart into the starting lineup and bring Tatum off the bench. Smart can take over as the primary defender on opposing point guards, which allows Brown to play his regular role as a defender on the wing. Smart’s offensive deficiencies are lessened by playing with Boston’s best offensive players. And because Smart has become an adept playmaker as a ball handler and passer, the Celtics could move Irving off the ball some. This would lessen his burden on offense and allow him some valuable rest on the occasional possession.
Tatum can give the bench the scoring boost they need, in addition to a little more size on the second unit. And Boston can still close with the preferred closing lineup of Irving, Smart, Brown, Tatum and Horford.
The NBA season is a grind. Players are going to go in and out all year long. When Gordon Hayward went down, Stevens had to tweak everything the team had planned for since the summer. Now it is time to kill two birds with one stone and make another change.