After suffering through some growing pains on the defensive end, the Celtics have looked like the clamp down team many envisioned in in training camp:
The Celtics currently have the NBA’s ninth-best defense, maintaining a defensive rating of 104.1. Boston has held five of their last seven opponents to fewer than 95 points: the Magic (79), Heat (78), Raptors (88), and Cavaliers twice (91 on Saturday and 92 on Monday).
It’s been an identity-defining improvement, but as head coach Ime Udoka noted after Monday’s win in Cleveland, the team’s attention will now turn to the offensive side of the ball and that focus shifted mid-game against the Cavaliers.
“We really emphasized playing faster. Freed it up, called less plays in the second half. That was the difference,” Udoka said after the Celtics scored 61 second half points to their 37 in the first two quarters.
For Boston to be successful on offense (particularly without Jaylen Brown in the lineup), Udoka has put a premium on getting downhill and attacking the paint. In the first half, the Celtics seemed to hunt mismatches they thought they could exploit. With Jarrett Allen out, the Cavaliers had little rim protection and Boston seemed content playing more one-on-one. Here’s a supercut of some of the Celtics’ first quarter possessions:
Boston is notoriously one of the highest frequency teams that utilize isolation. They’re second in usage (11.2%) to the Nets (12.4%), but don’t have a Kevin Durant or James Harden to lean on. Subsequently, Brooklyn ranks in the 90th percentile (1.05 points per possession) to Boston’s 35th percentile (0.84 points per possession).
Even though isolating mismatches on the floor can generate drives, penetration, double teams, and subsequently, kicks out and open shots, it’s a languid form of offense that doesn’t actively involve the other four players on the floor, a point of course Marcus Smart fashioned into a grenade and threw into the Boston locker room after the Celtics coughed up a 19-point lead to the Bulls two weeks ago.
After Udoka showed the team a few clips of their offensive stagnation at halftime, Boston looked like an offensive juggernaut in the second half, scoring 61 points on 21-of-37 shooting (that including 6-of-12 from behind the arc) with twelve assists and a whopping 16 trips to the free throw line. Here’s the Celtics 33-point surge in the clutch:
The cure? Involving multiple players in screens, pick-and-rolls, and off-ball movement in order to get in the key and shrink the defense. Everything is going to the basket and forcing Cleveland to constantly retreat.
Note the more decisive play of Marcus Smart and Dennis Schroder. When they come off screens, they’re not deliberately trying to force switches on to a big man and then driving. It’s attack attack attack.
And on a night when Jayson Tatum hit just 7 of his 20 shots, he still effectively made plays with four assists in the second half with three of them resulting in 3-pointers from Al Horford.
It took the Celtics fourteen games to revitalize their defense. In the coming days, Boston should get Brown and Robert Williams back into the fold when they get back to TD Garden for a four-game homestand. That could be the perfect opportunity to get back in the lab and figure out their offense before hitting the road for a west coast trip in December.