BRIGHTON, MA — The Boston Celtics’ defense will look different this year.
New personnel, a full season of experience for head coach Joe Mazzulla, and a different starting lineup will all contribute to a new-look defensive scheme. And everyone will have to buy in.
But the buy-in from players will be more than simply accepting a role within Boston’s defensive system. Instead, it’s about accepting a level of controlled chaos that will allow players the freedom to riff within the team’s structure.
“I think we have a framework for what we want to do. But at the same time, we have such high-level guys. They have to be able to use their instincts,” Mazzulla said after Thursday’s film session. “I think as the league trends, there’s no one way to guard a defensive possession, and every defensive possession creates a new opportunity. A new solution.”
In Boston’s season opener against the New York Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis was featured in drop coverage. His presence at the rim led to a dominant display of interior defense, albeit coupled with struggles on the defensive glass.
Porzingis ended the game with four blocks and helped the Celtics hold the Knicks to just 24 points in the paint. New York shot 11-of-34 in the restricted area and 1-of-9 in the rest of the paint.
But while Porzingis’ presence inside was the focal point of Boston’s defensive success, the activity from the rest of the team allowed him to stay in position throughout the contest.
“I think we want to be active,” Derrick White said on Thursday. “Obviously, having KP protecting the paint, he did a great job of making it difficult for them all night. Us guards out there, we just have to fly around and be active. Try to make it difficult for them.”
New York’s red-hot three-point shooting and dominance on the offensive glass kept them in the game, but the Celtics’ interior defense was menacing.
When the Knicks ran pick-n-roll actions, Jrue Holiday, White, and others threw out a steady mix of rotations and fake help. The constant switch-ups not only kept New York honest inside the arc, but it also caused hesitation.
This style of scrambling defense helped the Celtics prevent drives, but it also forced the Knicks to second-guess themselves at the three-point line. With 3:20 left in the third quarter, Julius Randle and Josh Hart were passing the ball back and forth from the wing to the corner, but neither took the shot.
By the time Randle forced up a three, White and Al Horford had put so much pressure on the perimeter that the look he got was as effective as a shot clock violation.
And while this action may have been initially caused by a breakdown in Boston’s initial defensive gameplan, their comfortability in the realm of chaos made it work.
“At that point, we were just trying to put away fires,” Horford said on Thursday. “Our defense kind of got out of control. Derrick, he plays so hard out there. He’s really trying to play the right way. I’m trying to do the same. We’re just trying to do whatever we can to help us win.
“In that possession there, it was just kind of us. Our defense kind of broke down, and it was just kind of making up and making sure we didn’t give up an open three or a good look for them. So, that’s what that was.”
As the Celtics traverse these new defensive waters they find themselves in, schemes are going to change, and players are going to play different roles.
Last night, Holiday guarded Randle, Boston left Porzingis in drop for most of the game, and the Knicks fought back with a barrage of threes. In the next game, Porzingis could jump out of the paint more often. After the Celtics’ second preseason game against the Knicks, he said Mazzulla has given him a “green light” to trap instead of drop when he sees fit.
The unpredictability of Boston’s defense reared its head throughout the preseason, and in the regular season opener, it proved consistent. But if this beautifully anarchic defensive style is to work, it needs to be a collective effort.
“As long as we maintain our effort and our communication, the scheme can change,” Mazzulla said. “And I think guys are really buying into that ownership and that freedom. Just got to play hard and do it together.”