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Celtics’ defense on full display vs. Hawks

Boston’s surging offense has been the spark of the winning streak, but it’s been their defense that has fueled this team and given them their identity all season.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The offensive improvement has been the headline of Boston’s eight-game winning streak, but the consistency of the defense has been the backbone of not just this recent run, but the entire season. They’ve averaged a 123.4 OffRtg which is by far first in the league, but their 101.4 DefRtg is second only to the Indiana Pacers. There are many statistics of note. First, Boston is sixth in defensive rebounding rate at 74.6% and thus sixth in opponents points in transition. They’re third in opponent’s points off of turnovers (although terrible against Atlanta with 34), second in opponent’s FG%, and fourth in opponent’s points in the paint. The tanking Hawks may be an easy target for defensive highlights, but the tape does show Boston’s growing chemistry and versatility.

What’s made them so stong on the defensive side of the ball is their weak side rotation. Like most NBA teams, they’ll overload the ball side in favor of keeping an extra defender in the mix, but if the ball swings across the court, good defensive teams readjust quickly on the fly to either contest a shot or rotate over to cut off penetration.

In both examples above, you can see how the Celtics react to either a roller or a driver. The rotations are perfect with defenders in place for the next offensive attack.

Watch the rotations on this post up from John Collins. Gordon Hayward is the initial defender, but when Daniel Theis notices that he’s out of position, he slides down to cover the paint. When Collins turns baseline, Jaylen Brown immediately goes down to cover the corner pocket 3 while Hayward simultaneously switches to Brown’s initial cover. The Celtics defense is strung together like Christmas lights with all the bulbs burning brightly.

There’s also that old basketball adage of “turning good defense into good offense.” At halftime, Gordon Hayward noted that one of the reasons the Hawks got themselves back into the game was because of Boston’s lack of intensity on defense. Last night against the Hawks, the Celtics scored 44 points off of turnovers. That’s the most by any team this season. Boston also recorded a season-high 15 steals. Some of this can be accounted by pace; the Hawks lead the league with nearly 107 possessions per game. That notwithstanding, Boston’s defense was daunting.

If they can make those reads quick enough on the weak side, they can create live ball turnovers and turn it into instant offense in transition. Jayson Tatum flubs the fast break opportunity the first time, but flushes it home later in the third quarter.

And even when the defense breaks down far enough where the Hawks get into the restricted area, there’s a Robert Williams sighting with a huge block, one of his five of the night. Timelord is an element that the Celtics’ defense just hasn’t had over the last two years. Al Horford and Aron Baynes are very good positional defenders, but neither strikes the fear of Block God like Williams has during this recent stretch.

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