Overcoming the Orlando Magic should never have been in question for this Boston Celtics team. Yet, entering the contest, we wondered how the team would navigate their early-season struggles. The first quarter raised more questions than it provided answers. The Magic continually found ways to penetrate the defense and get shots at the rim before an evenly match second quarter saw the Celtics finish the half within touching distance of the lead.
During halftime, whatever was said in the locker room certainly did the trick, as the Celtics provided their best defensive performance of this young season. "I was encouraged. We talked a lot about coming out and setting the tone on the defensive end and having the right energy. And I feel like everybody was very connected and doing the things we needed to do. We showed some signs of consistency in that area, and the offense flowed a little bit, which was encouraging. Because at this point, we just need to be better as a group," Al Horford explained after the Celtics limited the Magic to just 10 points in the third quarter.
High energy defensive possessions like the one above ensured the Celtics kept the Magic on the perimeter for significant stretches. One of the most notable aspects of how the Celtics defended the above possession is the corner dribble handoff (DHO), which the Magic run twice on this possession and has continually burned the Celtics this season. Rather than switching the action, Al Horford stays with Franz Wagner and forces him deep towards the half-court line, causing the rookie to panic and force a pass to Cole Anthony with second remaining on the shot clock.
When playing in Udoka's traditional defensive system, switches were executed quickly, with minimal opportunity for the Magic to attack in space. While the rotations to "fill in" were performed with an urgency we've seldom seen from the Celtics thus far. Second side actions were limited due to how the Celtics were clogging the passing lanes, while the paint was off limits thanks to great positional defense by both Horford and Williams.
Some of the Magic's third quarter downfall was their own doing, such as settling for deep threes and failing to implement any actions to get downhill action. The Celtics deserve praise for their throwback defensive performance, which led to numerous shot clock violations.
On this possession, the Magic probe the defense with DHO's on both corners, yet Robert Williams’ presence in the middle, along with the Celtics intensity on the perimeter, force multiple actions to break down before the Magic get unlucky with an out-of-bounds call on a made three with 1.3 seconds remaining.
"Adjustment-wise, it was guarding the paint; 18 of their first 28 in that first quarter were in the paint, so we wanted to focus on making them shoot the ball. 9-for-43 overall, I think we forced some three-point shots that kept them out of the paint," Udoka explained when asked about the Celtics' improved second half defense.
It's those adjustments that Udoka speaks of that we've been waiting to see from this Celtics team. Too often this season, the team has looked incapable of adjusting their defensive approach and has found themselves susceptible when teams have countered or exploited their defensive fragility.
Boston's effort levels also track in the hustle statistics. Throughout the game, the Celtics contested 61 shots as opposed to the Magic's 40 shot contests; they also registered 11 deflections to go along with their seven steals and won the rebounding battle thanks to their 41 defensive rebounds.
It feels good to speak about a positive defensive performance again, one that reminds us what the Celtics are capable of when they're locked in and hungry for success. "We always have to rely on our defense. We talk about that every night, whether shots are falling or not, we can always fall back on that," Udoka said.
Udoka has a point too, and great offenses can have off-nights or cold streaks that will put them into a hole. But a great defense is something that you can always fall back on, a commodity that relies more on communication and effort than it does momentum.
Those 71 points allowed would have been the Celtics' best defensive performance since 2013 until this late garbage time run by the Magic in the final minute. Gave up just 25 points in the second half up until Boston emptied the bench with two minutes left.— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) November 4, 2021
Coming into the season, this roster's defensive make-up had so many excited with Smart, Josh Richardson, Dennis Schroder, Williams, and Horford all known for their defensive versatility and aggression. Perhaps it just took a while for the new pieces to gel or maybe we should continue to approach this team with caution because Orlando is clearly amidst a rebuild and doesn't provide the sternest of measuring sticks.
We should get a clearer picture of the Celtics defense, and if the team has actually turned a corner on that end of the floor today against the Miami Heat, in what will be the second night of a back-to-back for Boston. We should have a much clearer picture of what to expect from this team against elite competition once the dust settles.