During their developmental years, this Boston Celtics core found out how debilitating and momentum-shifting turnovers can be. One moment, you’re riding the crest of a wave, controlling every aspect of the game; then, in the blink of an eye, the tides turn.
When facing the Golden State Warriors in last season’s NBA Finals, the Celtics were once again reminded of the impact ill-timed turnovers can cause and how over the course of a series, it can feel like death by a thousand paper cuts.
Turnovers are inevitable at the NBA level where you’re faced with the best, most athletically gifted defenders in the world and are forced to attack at pace in the hope of creating some daylight. Yet, the best teams find a way to take care of the ball when it matters.
Fortunately for the Celtics, it would appear that they’re now passing on those tough lessons and snatching away momentum at every possible turn. We saw it in their victory over the Sacramento Kings, where Boston forced 14 turnovers.
“They kicked our behinds,” Mike Brown said after the game. “Starts with me. We all got our behinds kicked. There’s nothing tricky or hidden behind what I’m saying. They switched everything and turned us over. We had 14 turnovers, and they capitalized on almost every turnover. So, they beat us in the turnover game. They had five turnovers, and we scored six points off their five turnovers, so right there, they outscored us by 15 points in the turnover game…That’s the ball game, and you got two guys like Tatum and Brown, and they’re a load. We didn’t have an answer for them. So, you gotta give the Celtics credit.”
Yet, turnovers are often the byproduct of poor decision-making and not always due to defensive intensity, which is why the Celtics have been putting in additional effort to steal the rock at every given opportunity. Against the Kings, they secured nine steals before bullying the Indiana Pacers by participating in grand theft basketball 11 times — and it’s all due to their increased pressure on the defensive end.
Take note of the way Boston took away the paint before cranking up the pressure, leading to a bad pass, which Marcus Smart was well-placed to intercept.
It all starts with Sam Hauser operating in lock-and-trail coverage as T.J. McConnell comes off a screen. Grant Williams and Al Horford pinch into the paint to take away the driving lane and force a pass out to the corner. Hauser follows the rock and helps guide Jordan Nwora toward Williams before switching back out to McConnell, who has filled the empty corner spot.
With nowhere to go, Nwora tries to get fancy with it, and from there, Boston is out to the races in transition.
Once again, we see the Celtics ramp up the on-ball pressure when defending the pick-and-roll. This time, it’s Smart operating in the lock-and-trail with Horford operating in drop and Jaylen Brown turning the screws with a well-timed dig toward the ball, which scrambles Tyrese Haliburton’s brain for a brief moment and gives the Celtics yet another opportunity to get the ball moving at pace and attack a scrambling Pacers defense.
First of all, let’s give the Celtics' pick-and-roll defense some credit. In their last two games, Boston has faced two of the shiftiest young guards in the league and found ways to contain them and limit their ability to get downhill and make things happen. That’s not easy and should certainly be seen as an encouraging sign as we head toward the postseason.
Nevertheless, Boston didn’t just create havoc when defending the NBA’s most prevalent action. Instead, the Celtics also found ways to do damage in the steals column by anticipating the offense’s next move and outworking their counterparts when going for 50/50 balls.
Here is a good example of anticipating the pass. While it might not look or sound like it on TV, elite defenses are in constant communication with each other, so there’s very little chance that Hauser wasn’t aware of Nwora’s presence in the corner. After both Horford and Williams shut down the initial rim drive in transition, and the ball makes its way out to Buddy Hield, the Celtics' defense settles in, with Derrick White forcing Hield to drive out of the corner, where he is met by Horford.
Herein lies the anticipation factor. Hauser can’t be sure that Hield is looking to skip the ball to Nwora, but he has to expect it, especially if he wants to deflect or secure the rock. Sure enough, Hield sees Nwora sitting open on the weakside corner and looks to make the pass. Stolen.
In every sport, setting traps is part of an elite defense, and while I’m not saying that the steal was courtesy of a well-laid trap, there is a very good chance that is the case.
I’ve added this final clip in for the vibes. Robert Williams is back, baby, and the Pacers game was arguably his best performance of the season. So, for Haliburton to be so brazen as to attempt an over-the-top pass on one of the most athletic bigs in the NBA, only for the ball to be stolen and Williams to bring it over halfcourt — it’s the stuff Celtics fans dream of.
Throughout the six-game road trip, there were plenty of moments where Boston’s defense appeared to be lackluster and unreliable when the pressure was on, with multiple blown leads the perfect evidence. However, in the last two outings, we’ve seen a version of the Celtics that we became incredibly accustomed to this time last year. The effort, hustle, and desire have all been evident, so if that is what we’re going to see moving forward, we could be witnessing the next evolution in this team’s defensive identity; but that will be up for discussion further down the line, not after a two-game sample size.
Still, with just eight games remaining in the regular season, there are some good signs and reasons to be excited for what’s to come. Hopefully, the Celtics can continue to build upon their rearguard performances of the last two games when they face the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday evening. After all, the Celtics have been taught these tough lessons in the past; maybe now it’s time for the student to assume the role of teacher and reap the rewards that graduating tends to offer.