A common misconception about Boston’s 2021-22 campaign — particularly as it pertains to the team’s defense — is that it was fueled by Marcus Smart, the eventual Defensive Player of the Year. In reality, while Smart led the Celtics in effort and in heart, it was Robert Williams III who led the team’s defense from an overall perspective. Williams ranked first on the team in defensive plus/minus (3.1), second in defensive win shares (3.9), first in blocks (2.2), and was tied for first in defensive rating (103.4). In conclusion: Smart’s DPOY win is fraudulent.
I kid, of course. These stats are hardly airtight when it comes to determining who serves as a defense’s conductor. But for anyone who watched Williams play last season, both his impact and his numbers pass the eye test; it’s why Timelord made last season’s All-Defensive second team and finished seventh in DPOY voting. He was the bellwether for the NBA’s best defense last season, and he wasn’t even recognized as that team’s best defender when the season came to a close.
But RWIII won’t be available until at least Christmas this season, and anyone looking at Boston as presently constituted might have had a tougher time viewing the Celtics as the same sort of defensive juggernaut without Williams. And yet, the Celtics' defense showed up on Tuesday night, perhaps even more than their offense... depending on who you ask.
Boston’s hallmark last season, particularly when it came to how the team fueled its incredible midseason turnaround, was its defensive prowess. But after one game — a 126-117 win for the C’s — it may or may not be a toss-up as to which side of the ball is where they are the strongest. It’s possible that they are equally as responsible for Boston’s Opening Night victory, and could continue to be in lockstep for the remainder of the season. After one night, it’s understandably tough to tell. Nevertheless, it’s fun to take a nice, long look at what worked for Boston on both ends.
Boston’s communication on defense is as active as ever
The mark of a great defense is its ability to react to an offense’s actions in a seamless manner, a fashion that 1) looks preternatural, and 2) appears to be clued into whatever the opposition looks set up to do on the upcoming possession. On Tuesday, the Celtics fit both bills, meeting the mark of a reactive defense which is far ahead of its opponent, as adept in passing lanes as it is at the rim. It’s a nightmarish equation.
What inspires the most confidence about Boston’s defensive effort on Opening Night is its ability to rotate, particularly when Philadelphia’s best offensive talents were on the attack. Joel Embiid often looked to create in the midrange and off the dribble, but the Celtics seemed to be playing one step ahead on every trip.
Jayson Tatum, in particular, worked his way into dribbling and passing lanes, making things more difficult for Embiid to gather himself while backing down his undersized man in Noah Vonleh. (Yes, Vonleh is 6-foot-10. But Embiid is Mount Kilimanjaro. To unsettle his rhythm at any point, however much, is crucial to a winning formula.)
The second play in the above video might be the most important of the night. Not for what it meant in the game — it was 35-33; not exactly a crunch time scenario — but what it portends for Boston’s defensive approach this season. Twice is Joel Embiid double-teamed, once before the attack, with the other coming mid-drive. But Boston is never out of position. When Malcolm Brogdon rushes to double Embiid along with Vonleh, Tatum and Brown both point to a cutting De’Anthony Melton, causing a chain reaction that results in the following rotations, seen in the picture below:
- Horford stays in the bottom of the paint, but shades just a touch higher than the baseline in order to be able to cover Melton should a pass come Melton’s way before Brogdon returns to Melton. This slight movement lets him stick with PJ Tucker, too, as he threatens a baseline cut.
- Jaylen Brown is in (almost) perfect position here. He has the ability to drop down to take away Tucker if Horford has to slide up, while just enough proximity to Danuel House Jr. in the corner should a skip pass come his way. He could be opened up a bit more in order to not have his back facing House Jr., but he’s quick enough to get away with it.
- Brogdon is seen here returning to his assignment on Melton after pressuring Embiid and thwarting a drive attempt. He cuts off Melton, forcing Melton to jet out behind the arc. Given where Melton and Tyrese Maxey are situated by the end of this play — somewhere in Dorcester, it seems — Tatum, Brogdon, and Vonleh can all play a part in Embiid fumbling the ball.
This is the kind of help Boston tortured their opponents with last year. Seeing it in action as though it didn’t skip a beat, especially against such a difficult opponent, is symphonic.
And the offense? Not half-bad either.
Tatum and Brown combined for 70 points and shot a combined 27-for-44 (61 percent) from the field. Marcus Smart was relatively efficient and had seven assists; that’s a point guard effort if I’ve ever seen one. Malcolm Brogdon had a terrific 16-point debut, and Grant Williams added 15 of his own. Things offensively were clicking on all cylinders.
But naturally, it’s the little things that catch your eye and provide a glimmer of what could be a new expectation for this Celtics’ season. One thing in particular? Jayson Tatum’s floater.
Jiminy Christmas. The way he collects and assesses what’s in front of him on this drive is not something we’ve seen from Tatum before. It was well-documented that one of the Celtics’ star’s primary focuses this offseason was shoring up that part of his bag, and though it was just one attempt, it showed. Even just a season ago, Tatum might have opted for a contested prayer at the rim, or even an off-balance fadeaway jumper from inside the paint. Not now; this move is cleaner, sexier, better. I’m overheating, but I can’t stop clicking replay.
How both Tatum and Brown elected to spread out their shots on Tuesday should also inspire a great deal of confidence. Both were all but perfect at the rim, and only a select few shots felt like ones that were settled for. Tatum’s trio of makes from the left midrange were especially clean — he made room for himself to work in tight spaces and rose above defenders in his grill for each of them. Nothing felt forced.
Boston’s All-Star duo will obviously be its engine. But whether it’s through Malcolm Brogdon running his way around the entire Philadelphia defense for a layup...
... or Grant Williams showing poise in the paint when a pass is dumped his way in heavy traffic...
... this team has no shortage of options on the offensive end. Though this piece began with a clear one or the other question, much like everything about the Boston Celtics, it’s not quite that simple. This team can’t have its offense without its defense, and vice versa. And the best of Boston’s both worlds, both in potential and in action, prove to be a terrifying prospect for the rest of the league.