Despite the 2020-21 NBA season being a tough one for the Boston Celtics, we still came away with some awesome memories and moments. We got the Jayson Tatum behind the back pass against the Los Angeles Lakers, Aaron Nesmith had some highly encouraging games, Robert Williams finally got a run with the starters, and countless more.
One game from last season has stuck with me, in large part due to the resiliency and effort levels on display, and that memory is the comeback win against the San Antonio Spurs. Let’s be honest here: after the first quarter, things were looking bad and by halftime, it seemed like another tough night at the office.
Then the Celtics found a new gear, as they came out and turned the game on its head. Re-watching that game a couple of times throughout the week, a couple of specific areas stood out from both the Spurs and the Celtics. Let’s take a look at each area and how they affected the game.
Let’s split this up by half, with the first two segments discussing why the Celtics found themselves staring down the barrel and the second two on how they turned it around.
Boston’s half court struggles
The Spurs had done their homework coming into this game and looked to frustrate the Celtics from the get-go. Gregg Popovich had his team set up to dare Boston’s shooters to fire at will and restrict anything in the interior. The Spurs swarmed the ball-handler every time they ventured inside the three-point line and relied on Jakob Poeltl’s rim deterrence to impact passing decisions.
The Spurs guards would pinch almost immediately, and Poeltl would shuttle between the helplines to remove lob threats of 45-cuts from the wing, while the Spurs’ wings were ensuring the perimeter remained a poison chalice for any potential swing pass.
Poeltl operating in what I call the “shuttle” role. He was a defensive menace, operating between the high and low helplines, using their hip dexterity to change directions and fill any danger zones at pace - similar to playing in drop coverage, except having the freedom to operate outside of the paint and impact the ball higher up the floor.
The Celtics had no answer for him throughout the first half, as Poeltl continually closed down any potential lob space and ensured driving guards or wings couldn’t embark on their desired path to shooting pockets.
The Celtics couldn’t break down the defensive barrier Popovich had drawn up. Every drive got shut off, every cut was easily covered. As a result, the Celtics went 5-for-18 from deep and shot just 34.8% from the field in the first half. When it came to easy buckets around the rim, only Tatum succeeded in creating openings to drive the lane.
When the easiest way of putting points on the board is taken away, it’s logical that teams will begin to test their opponents' three-point resistance. However, the Celtics were forcing shots from beyond the arc, most of them to clank off the rim.
Throughout the first half, the Celtics half court offense was rather rudimentary, the team ran multiple screen sets, be it drag, step-up, or flipping the angle, with the lack of success in their high pick-and-roll game the Celtics started to run some actions on the wing. Curls off stagger screens in an attempt to get Jaylen Brown attacking downhill, Chicago sets to create driving lanes or easy shooting opportunities - the Celtics began to explore the depths of the Spurs' defensive robustness.
There’s also the case of poor finishing on second-chance opportunities. Again you need to credit the Spurs defense for suffocating every paint possession, regardless of whether the entry came off the boards, drive, or pass.
Lackluster defense and a passing clinic
Where the Celtics lived or died with their unaggressive offense, the Spurs wanted to push the pace. Early offense allowed San Antonio to carve open the defense with crisp passes and easy jumpers before they began to pile on with the rim pressure.
For their part, the Celtics had multiple solid defensive possessions that resulted in a disheartening make by a Spurs player. However, for every solid defensive possession, there were two breakdowns in communication.
NBC Boston’s Brian Scalabrine noted during the broadcast of the game that the way San Antonio was moving the ball made it “incredibly hard to defend”, but far too often the Celtics found themselves reacting to the ball.
Help defense is a core concept of a successful defensive unit, but overhelping can be as damaging as underhelping. If every player reacts to the ball, multiple guys are left free to roam in space - especially on the weak side.
Demar DeRozan is a mid-range killer, and he used his presence around the free throw line to force Boston’s defense into bending. With the Celtics attempting to funnel the Spurs offense towards the rim-protecting Robert Williams, Greg Popovich was licking his lips. Both Williams and Thompson are predominately drop defenders, allowing the Spurs to work from their favored area of the floor: the mid-range.
Hitting 71.4% of their field goals, the Spurs' success on offense had a direct knock-on effect on the Celtics' offensive outlook. You can’t attack the break if a team has made their shot.
Impacting the ball and pushing the pace
At halftime, the score was 77-48. When the Celtics came out for the third quarter, their game plan was simple: get into the ball and push the pace. Essentially, Brad Stevens began to lean into his team’s youthfulness and athletic abilities.
Gone were the consistent high pick-and-roll sets, and in their place were pitch passes and cutters off both wings. Taking a leaf out of the Spurs book, the Celtics began to look for opportunities around the elbows and began to use Robert Williams to link plays around the top of the key.
The more Boston ran offense aimed at pressuring the rim and dragging Poeltl out of position, the easier they began to come by three-point opportunities. Led by Marcus Smart, the Celtics were impacting the ball on every defensive possession, clogging passing lanes and staying connected to their man. Switches were vocalized better, allowing defenders to reposition accordingly.
Frankly, they were fighting for pride, giving no inch in every battle.
Their intense brand of defense began to pay off, as the Celtics held the Spurs to just 34.8% in the third quarter and 34.1% overall for the second half. Sure, players were still being funneled towards Williams and Tristan Thompson, but the guards and wings were pinching rather than overcommitting, and stunting rather than early switching.
After going scoreless on fast break points in the first half, the Celtics found a way to get an easy eight points on the break in the second. Impressively, with their rediscovered identity on defense, the Celtics held the Spurs to just 12 points in the paint in the second half; a far cry from the 32 they gave up before halftime.
Here’s a great example of how the Celtics controlled the paint forcing a turnover.
On Keldon Johnson’s next venture into the Celtics’ defense, the team does another great job at cutting off the rim and floater area. Granted, the Spurs get lucky with a bailout three, but the point remains the same: the Celtics were controlling the restricted area.
When you play bully ball on defense, good things tend to happen, and this was the case for the Celtics as they forced seven blocks after halftime.
With confidence riding high, the Celtics began to chip away at the Spurs' lead on the offensive end. Aaron Nesmith began to assert himself beyond the arc before stepping up with some clutch offensive boards. Jaylen Brown who had struggled mightily throughout the first half of the game began to get going, and most importantly, the role players began to find meaningful ways to make an impact.
Jayson Tatum decided to go beast mode
Boston scored 16 points in the first quarter of this contest—Tatum had 14. Another 10 points in the second quarter saw the All-Star wing head in at halftime with 24 points to his name. A quiet third saw Tatum take his tally to 29 as the team entered the final quarter of the game.
Then a bad call got Tatum heated.
TWENTY-ONE POINTS on 3-of-3 shooting from deep and 7-of-12 overall, Tatum took control of the game in the final stretch. Sometimes a player is so hot, all you can do is feed them the ball and let them get to work.
For all the criticism leveled at Tatum last season, this was a game where you didn’t mind the ball sticking a little bit. From side-step threes to slaloms into the paint, Boston’s talismanic wing was showing a full array of superstar scoring skills.
For their part, the Spurs were doing their best to contain him, yet after failing to shut Tatum down for the whole game, things weren’t looking too good for them down the stretch. It felt like Tatum was getting to the line every time he drove inside, as he went 4-of-5 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter alone.
Oh, and here’s a monster dunk from Tatum to get his teammates fired up.
Hat tip: Aaron Nesmith
A quick aside on Aaron Nesmith. After struggling early in the season, this is one of the games where Aaron Nesmith first looked like a viable option on offense. A 9-point fourth quarter capped off an impressive night where he went 7-of-9 from the field and 2-of-3 from deep for a total of 16 points.
Nesmith’s energy and hustle on defense played a big part in the Celtics' ability to impact the ball consistently. Pulling down six boards was also a pleasant surprise for the 2020 lottery pick.
A memorable win and a look to the future
Choosing which game to go back and break down was a tough task. The Celtics had multiple impressive victories last season, it’s just a shame that those victories were spread out between some head-scratching losses. Such is life.
Re-watching this contest was a fun exercise in Celtics pride, and gives a good indicator of the potential the team's core has. Kemba Walker didn’t play in this game, so there’s no postulating how Smart will fill his role, and the majority of impactful players remain on the roster for the upcoming season.
Hopefully, Ime Udoka channels the energy from performances like this (well, the second half anyway), because if he does, then the Celtics are going to be a tough prospect next season.
Brad Stevens has done a great job at increasing the rotations size, length, and skillset during the offseason. When looking at how the Celtics overcame the odds against the Spurs and then looking at their improvements from a personnel standpoint, it’s only natural to be eager to see the product on the floor.
The season can’t come soon enough!