TNT Thursday night was billed as a clash of MVP titans. In the blowout win over the Mavericks, Jayson Tatum racked up just his second career triple double with 29 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists. Luka Doncic shot just 7-of-23 from the field en route to a modest 23 points with just three assists and four turnovers. After scoring 51 on New Year’s Eve and 60 in a win against the Knicks, he was the NBA’s hottest player over the last week.
“We took away his free throws and we took away his assists. We took away his three-point shot and forced him into contested twos,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said after his team clamped down the league’s leading scorer. “I thought we did a good job with that. If you remember, the last time we played them, in the third quarter, he had twelve points on assists and transition threes. We took those away.”
Before the game, Jaylen Brown requested the initial assignment on Doncic, but after two quick offensive fouls in the first quarter, Smart drew the cover with Dallas wanting to target Derrick White. That didn't matter against a Celtics defense determined to erase the memory of the Thunder's 150-point outburst two days prior.
Dallas, on the other hand, is much more superstar-centric with Doncic leading the charge, but Boston, now 7th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, was ready. "Recognizing shifts, reading each out, understanding spacing, where the personnel is, who’s the actual guy that can help, who can’t help, and just being connected on the defensive end,” Mazzulla said.
Against Doncic, the Celtics switched everything 1 through 5, eliminating easy driving lanes or space to get up uncontested shots. With the shot clock winding down, it’s Al Horford facing up with Luka and here’s where knowing time, space, and personnel matters. With Horford shading Doncic to his right and seven seconds left, Malcolm Brogdon quickly double teams above the break.
The next level here is Marcus Smart. He’s now pressed to defend two players: his original man, Christian Wood, and Reggie Bullock. He shows on Bullock, a career 38% three-point shooter, and that’s enough to force Dallas into a sloppy turnover.
Want to improve your defense? Play two All-NBA defenders on the floor at the same time. After a missed free throw, notice the matchups that Boston picks up in the halfcourt. The obvious is Smart sticking on Doncic, but instead of Grant Williams covering somebody on the perimeter with his quick feet, he takes Wood with Robert Williams taking Bullock as the weak side shooter.
Because of his ability to contest three-pointers, Time Lord is in a bit of a drop, but not deep enough that he can’t contest a Doncic pull-up. Smart gambles a little and doubles early without a third defender — the clock — in Boston’s favor. However, his teammates have his back and immediately go into a firefighter drill.
Derrick White seals off Tim Hardaway Jr. in the dunker spot and Brogdon is left to cover two players, Bullock and Spencer Dinwiddie. Bullock is the more likely release man fifteen feet from the play so Brogdon extinguishes the cut.
But as good as Boston's defense looked against arguably the league's best player, the Celtics still have a lot to prove. As Mazzulla put it, “they showed me they can do it one time. We have to do it over and over again.”