After their 3-0 start to the season, the Boston Celtics have gone 2-3 in their last five games, with many pointing at their defensive numbers as the primary reason. They laid claim to the best defense in the league last year, but just seven games in, that’s far from the case.
Despite that, Joe Mazzulla has remained confident. And during his pre-game press conference ahead of Boston’s November 4 matchup against the Chicago Bulls, he emphasized that confidence.
“We’re number one in defense, by the way, [in the] last two games,” Mazzulla blurted out jokingly in the middle of an answer. “No one’s asked about that.”
Boston’s last two games consist of a 113-114 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers and a 112-94 win over the Washington Wizards. And while the Celtics may not the best team in terms of defensive rating over the past two games (100.5; sixth in the NBA), their numbers have improved drastically.
“When your best players want to play defense, and they take pride in it, you have a chance to be good. I think he’s done that over the course of last year and this year,” Mazzulla said of Tatum. “And I think our whole team has. Number one in defense, number one in field goal percentage defense, and number one in free throw rate.”
Last season, the Celtics’ 106.2 defensive rating topped the league, and they allowed just 104.5 points per game - also the best mark in the league. But with Ime Udoka’s suspension and the injury to Robert Williams, their slow start on that end was immediately called into question.
But Mazzulla believes that their early struggles have nothing to do with effort. The Celtics just have to reestablish the same habits that helped them last season.
“Defense is something that comes with time,” Mazzulla said. “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, it’s not an effort issue. Our guys play really, really hard, and they want to win. It’s a matter of reestablishing habits. Reestablishing standards. And we have moments where we’re not great defensively, where we let go of the rope a little bit, but I love the steps that we’ve taken over the last two, three games.”
He also noted that there’s “nothing” different about the way they’ve been playing over the last two games in regard to the game plan and adjustments.
Mazzulla also addressed the recent reports of Udoka joining the Nets, noting that he hasn’t had any talks with the Celtics about his long-term status as head coach. “I’m still the interim,” he stated.
And as the Celtics approach a stretch of seven games in 15 days, he’s focused on communicating with the players to ensure that they’re in the best possible position to win.
“Do whatever you got to do to win. There’ll be nights where you have to rely on your bench, which is why I think it’s important we play the way we do, especially with our second unit. Any time you can find guys opportunities to get guys an extra minute or two, I think that you do that. But, just listening to the guys, seeing how they feel, how they are. And then doing whatever we have to do to win the game at that time. So, you got to have a short-term approach and a long-term approach.”