Early season struggles are starting to look like teething issues rather than the catastrophe they felt like a week ago. While the Boston Celtics offense is still a work in progress, we're seeing signs of life on the defensive end, not microbial life either — we're talking fully-fledged civilizations.
In three of the Celtics' last four games, the team has limited their opponents to under 90 points, with Luka Doncic magic and the Dallas Mavericks the only blip in that four-game stretch. The Celtics are pressuring the ball-handler on the perimeter, switching at will, and banging in the paint if a team is fortunate enough to even get there.
"I think we've gelled to some extent. Obviously, that Florida trip was amazing. Holding teams to 78 and 79, but even 88 tonight against a well-oiled offensive team is a good job. We're learning the effort and intensity to win every single night, and defensively it's early in the season. It's a continuation of training camp with guys being in and out, I think, but we're starting to learn what we have to do to win on that end. So, we're mixing up some coverages, we've found out what some guys do better than what we did in preseason, and I think as coaches, we've learned as well. The players were hurt by what we did in the first game against these guys and really took it to heart and brought the effort tonight," Udoka said following the Celtics’ decimation of the Raptors.
Unlike at the start of the season, the Celtics are looking to set the tone early, playing with physicality and aggression from the opening tip, which instantly puts opposing offenses on their back foot, as they look to break down a staunch and imposing unit.
The above play is from the second defensive possession of the night for the Celtics. Early, they're already locked in. High ball pressure, intelligent switching, and help defense all play a part in keeping the Raptors at bay, before Marcus Smart's strength is tested by Pascal Siakam. Eventually, the Raptors settle for a rushed above the break three with six seconds remaining on the clock.
Frequently during the early games of the season, the Celtics struggled to execute their new defensive scheme and often got exposed by teams running specific actions to counter their miss-timed switches or rotations. Yet, when there were flashes of potential from the Celtics, they usually came later in the game as the team tried to rally back from a deficit.
"We've been playing very well. We have a lot of weapons on that end (defense) to be able to do it. There were a lot of new guys, so we were getting used to everybody, new defense. It didn't start out well for us, but we're picking things up, and guys are coming along, the chemistry on that end is coming along, we're doing our job," Smart said after the Celtics held Toronto to 42.9% shooting and 24% from three.
Here's another example of the Celtics' robust half-court defense. The Raptors run a stagger screen entry on the wing, causing the Celtics to switch out their man. Romeo Langford, who is originally guarding Fred VanVleet, goes over the first screen, causing Al Horford to pick up Scottie Barnes. Langford then goes under the Precious Achuiwa screen, allowing Grant Williams to switch onto VanVleet.
Any advantage the Raptors were looking to generate off their stagger screen has been nullified, and it's back to the drawing board with 13 seconds remaining. An intelligent "V-Cut" from Dalano Banton creates a paint entry pass for VanVleet, but Al Horford instinctively slides his feet over, again killing any advantage. Now the Raptors are scrambling, and a late clock Hail Mary hits the back of the rim.
"Our demeanor, we got tired of getting our a** kicked, and it showed. We continue to go out there and play 48 minutes through, and that's the difference. They came in last time and ran us off the floor, and we made sure that didn't happen again tonight," Smart explained when asked what had changed for the Celtics in recent games.
Despite the Celtics' uptick on defense, one area is still in need of work: defending in transition. When opponents push the ball off a turnover or missed shot, the Celtics look susceptible as they struggle to beat their man down the floor and eliminate the driving lane. Instead, Boston relies on rearview contests, hoping to either get the block or discombobulate the shooter's rhythm.
The Celtics gave up 9 points off turnovers in the third quarter and six more off fast breaks. Even when the defense gets back in time, Boston looks shaky as it works through the schematic positioning.
"With the defensive setting, it just depends on personnel, and who we're playing, we may switch defense ten times a game. It just depends. I'm just glad we did do that so our guys are getting used to playing each type of defense. It may not always be 15, it may not always be red, may not always be 14 and 13, so you got to pick up on it," Robert Williams explained as he touched on the multitude of defensive coverages the Celtics run.
Even in transition, the Celtics have begun to show signs of improvement, most notably during the third quarter against the Raptors, where multiple players read the passing lanes and blew up the Raptors' early offense.
Regardless of their struggles containing transition offense, the Celtics are a vastly improved unit on that end of the floor and are starting to develop an identity along with some of their key leaders.
"Just intensity and communication. I think Rob's been doing a great job of quarterbacking the defense, calling switches, calling coverages. I think Marcus did a good job today, and I think when he came in during the third, I think he swayed the momentum of the game, and I told him that after. Different guys have been stepping up, but I think across the board, it's just been communication and getting on the same page," Josh Richardson said as he explained the Celtics' ability to limit opposing offenses to score numbers more suited to the 1990’s.
Next up for Boston is the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, but the Celtics are unlikely to care who they face; they just want to shut you down and get the job done.