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How far can stellar defense take the Boston Celtics?

Coach Ime Udoka has this team defending at an elite level.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Head coach Ime Udoka’s vision for his Celtics squad is beginning to come into focus. Nameless, faceless opponents be damned - Boston is getting it done on defense.

A strong defensive identity is rare in the modern NBA. Occasional stalwarts come and go, but for years the game has centered on high-octane offense. From post-game highlights to daily discourse, defense is often a secondary concern in the Association.

For the 21-22 Celtics, this presents a bit of a pickle. Increasingly the C’s are winning games largely thanks to their superb defense. And it’s no fluke - there’s reason to believe this brand of stubborn, pugnacious ball is here to stay.

Boston’s offense, though, is much closer to average. Can the Celtics truly contend in the postseason with a defense-first approach? History tells a complicated story.

The recent past

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Now, defense isn’t a complete after-thought. Especially when things slow down in the postseason, getting stops is still an imperative. The 2020 Celtics-Heat Eastern Conference Finals stands as a reasonable reminder that, while offense reigns supreme, it’s only half the game.

That said, we want to know whether or not the 21-22 Celtics team can contend on the strength of their defense. Is there meaningful precedent? And what teams, if any, have reached the Finals with a defense-first identity.

Consider the following:

These are the NBA Finals participants from the last decade. The Offensive, Defensive, and Net Rating regular season league ranking for each team is listed. For example, last year Milwaukee was 5th in regular season offensive rating, sixth in regular season defensive rating, and fourth in regular season net rating.

LeBron James has made truly exploring the data here a little difficult (It’s good to be the King). But by and large, we don’t see teams reaching the Finals with a good offense and a great defense. Instead, there’s a slight preference but noticeable preference for good defense and great offense.

That might be a problem for Boston this season - Since Jan. 1, the Celtics are 13th in offensive rating, first in defensive rating, and first in net rating. Unbelievable given the state of affairs in November or December, but is it enough?

It’s also worth noting that outside of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, NBA championships are won by generational superstars. Your Duncans, your Currys. Your Wades and your Garnetts. Slightly less than stellar defense or slightly less than stellar offense can be offset when you have a bonafide Hall of Famer or two picking up the slack.

Jaylen Brown is 25. Jayson Tatum is 23. Yes, they’ve already led the Celtics to multiple ECF appearances. But can these two, anchored by a world-class defense, get Boston over the hump? History would say this is nearly impossible.

Happily, though, history does provide a model for how to get it done and a reminder that anything is possible.

The 2007-08 model

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Chris Elise/Getty Images

Now let’s be clear. I am not comparing this current Celtics team to the 2008 NBA Champions. The current squad does not employ three (four?) future Hall of Famers.

But if you squint, there might be some similarities.

Boston won 66 games in 07-08 en route to the franchise’s 17th banner. Impressively, they did this with just the 11th best offensive rating in the regular season. (In the postseason that number plateaued at 6th, for the record.)

With a 98.1 defensive rating, however, the C’s absolutely dominated the NBA. This was by far the best mark in the league and the team’s true bread and butter. That season Boston held opponents to an icy 31.8 percent from three and 41.9 percent from the field overall.

The offense was precise, but no juggernaut. The team was above average in assist rate, three-point percent, and pace, but only slightly. In both the regular season and the postseason, Boston’s suffocating defense was what set the tone.

Fast-forward to the modern day, and these Celtics have a chance to use a similar formula. The 21-22 C’s have the right personnel to lead with defense, and have shown more and more determination and snarl by the day.

Yes, these Celtics need to up the pace a little. They need to pass the ball more consistently. They need to shoot from deep more effectively. And Tatum and Brown need to set the example and the tone here. The C’s have real problems to fix.

Still, with Marcus Smart and Robert Williams bookending the defense and the Jays’ athleticism in the middle, this really could a special D. If the gravel in their gut is real, Boston is going to be a very tough out this spring.

The Eastern Conference looks like it might be wide open this year, and offense is stagnant across the NBA. Like the rest of the East Middle Class, the Celtics have a puncher’s chance to win a playoff round or two.

Unless this team is destined for greatness, odds are stellar D isn’t enough to get it done. But a defense-first approach is Boston’s best shot at contending.