For the year, the Celtics have had an average defense. At the midway point, they’re 16th in the league allowing 111 points per 100 possessions. In the fourth quarter, they’re even worse at 114.3 points (26th in the NBA). They played the most games in the clutch (5 point differential with 5 minutes to go) at twenty-two and are a dismal 9-13.
But on Sunday night, they changed the narrative. With 46.9 seconds on the clock, Bradley Beal cut to the basket undeterred to the put the Wizards up 5.
Jayson Tatum would answer with two quick hitting layups to draw Boston within one with fifteen ticks left. Brad Stevens could have opted to foul and probably would have had the Wizards crossed half court, but in the end, they didn’t have to.
Before Russell Westbrook in-bounds the ball, you can see the Celtics setting up to trap. Tatum and Javonte Green defend the sidelines trying to funnel any action towards the middle of the floor. Beal steps towards Westbrook for an easier pass, but to Boston’s advantage, makes the baseline a third defender.
They don’t double too hard, almost enticing Beal to make a looping pass under duress with Daniel Theis and Kemba Walker looking to make the steal, but before he can break the trap, Beal slips. Boston ball.
After Tatum puts Boston up 1 with another drive to the basket, Washington has plenty of time to win the game with 4.7 seconds left on the clock.
Beal curls around a screen with his 46 points in tow and good friend Tatum in pursuit. As soon as Westbrook puts the ball in play, Semi Ojeleye leaves him and immediately doubles Beal in the corner. For what it’s worth, Westbrook is a 25.9% three-point shooter from that spot on the floor. Ojeleye probably didn’t calculate those percentages in his head when he opted to double the league leader in scoring though. It was more likely the mental math was “let anybody beat us but Beal.”
Without a timeout, Beal’s forced in a difficult spot and Tatum’s 6’11” wingspan in his grill. The fall away rims out and the Celtics have their first winning streak since early January.
“We knew the ball was going to (Beal) and I wanted to guard him,” Tatum said after the game. “We did a great job of helping and getting that trap. He’s the leading scorer in the NBA. He’s been on a tear lately. It’s a group effort trying to get those stops late in the game.”
Tatum’s offense and game winner will make the highlights, but it was too defensive plays that made them possible.