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Udoka and Celtics establishing a defensive identity

Defense first is a great first step, but it is just the first step

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Finally! The Celtics have been searching for a (good) identity for over a year (dating back to the end of the bubble). Brad Stevens (as President of Basketball Operations) clearly identified defense as a priority in his offseason moves (both with the coach and the personnel).

The results were mixed at best through the first seven games or so, but since then, they’ve improved greatly. So what changed? Why the sudden uptick in defensive production?

For one thing, coach Ime Udoka has installed a new defensive system which relies much more heavily upon switching than this group has been accustomed to under Brad Stevens. We might see more teams around the league install more switch-heavy schemes in order to combat the way the game has trended to the 3-point line.

At first, Udoka had everyone switching everything in order to develop good habits and muscle memory for his players. That is a good strategy for teaching but is perhaps a bit too deliberate and predictable when trying to win actual NBA games. So he’s added layers and options to the defense.

Brian Robb points out on MassLive:

Slowly but surely, Udoka has righted the ship with this group on the defensive end in the past two weeks with a number of subtle but effective moves. He’s scaled back the defensive switching among the team’s true bigs (Rob Williams). He’s also leaning more heavily into playing strong wing defenders (Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford) off the bench over potential defensive liabilities (Payton Pritchard, Jabari Parker).

Problem areas are being addressed as well:

The leaps on the defensive end have been encouraging in a number of areas for Boston. The team’s defensive rebounding and field goal defense has jumped up from bottom-10 to top-five. Elsewhere, the team’s Achilles’ heel last season (fouling too much) has stabilized as well during the turnaround, going from 29th to 12th overall. That type of progress has eliminated any weak spots in the team’s defense on the whole, helping Boston limit teams to sub 100 points in five of their last seven games overall.

Harder to quantify is the uptick in energy and focus on the defensive end. Some of that might simply be due to players getting more comfortable with the schemes. Or maybe whatever funk they were in through the first few weeks was really cured by that “team dinner and don’t call it a players-only meeting.”

Regardless, the results are obviously trending in the right direction and that’s encouraging. This team has the personnel and coaching to be a top-5 defensive team and limiting opponents scoring is going to put you in position to win a lot of games. If nothing else, the team has at least picked a strategy and bought into making defense a priority.

Next up: fixing the offense.

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