Last year, the Boston Celtics made their money on the defensive side of the court. Marcus Smart and Robert Williams anchored the best defense in the NBA, and throughout the second half of the season, they were able to crush opponents on that end.
This year, there’s been more of an emphasis on the offensive end of the floor. Boston’s red-hot start was largely a product of their absurd three-point shooting, but as the year went on, water found its level. The offense is often still the focal point of the Celtics, but over the team’s last two games, defense (or lack there of) has shown its importance with just five games left before the playoffs.
In two straight games, the Celtics were on opposite ends of a blowout. On Tuesday, it was a 19-point loss to the below-.500 Washington Wizards, and on Thursday, it was a 41-point victory over the league-best Milwaukee Bucks.
Their loss to the Wizards was highlighted by a Kristaps Porzingis masteclass. No matter who the Celtics threw at Porzingis, it didn’t work. They stuck with the same gameplan for far too long, and it allowed Porzingis to get into a rhythm. In turn, they were forced to double, left three-point shooters open, and Washington punished them at every turn.
The Wizards big man finished with 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 shooting from distance. Those numbers include a 5-for-8 first quarter where the Celtics failed to make the necessary adjustments in order to deal with him.
Porzingis’ first four buckets of the game all were a result of him using his size to his advantage. Marcus Smart guarded him, and he shot over the top. Jayson Tatum guarded him, and he shot over the top. Jaylen Brown guarded him twice, and he drove… and shot over the top.
Rather than throw extra bodies at him, the Celtics continued to utilize the same defensive principle, and once they started doubling, guys like Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija made them pay from the perimeter. They were slow to respond, and once they did, they didn’t commit.
Against the Bucks, it was a completely different story.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate and one of the best players in the world. Last postseason, Boston employed a solid gameplan built around matchups and extra defensive help when it came to slowing him down. They used those same tactics on Thursday.
Antetokounmpo, who shoots 55.3% from the field, went just 11-for-27 (40.7%) against the Celtics. Boston threw Al Horford, Grant Williams, and others at him, and when he got into the post, they made sure he saw extra bodies closing in from the perimeter. The constant pressure had an obvious effect on the Bucks star.
It was a clear-cut defensive gameplan that worked to perfection, as the Bucks shot just 36.7% from the field as a team. Wherever Antetokounmpo went, the Celtics were there, and since he wasn’t able to get into a rhythm, Milwaukee’s primary threat was minimized.
Boston’s last two games showed the good and the bad of their defensive capabilities.
Porzingis and Antetokounmpo are two very different players. The former is a 7’3 big man who relies on his shot-making and height, while the latter is an attack-minded MVP candidate who will look to barrel his way through a defense.
Against Washington, Porzingis got hot early and continued his dominance by making some tough shots. He wrapped up the first half with a wild contested middy over the outstretched hand of Horford. And by that point, he was in a rhythm, and no matter what changes the Celtics threw at him, they were unable to recover.
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo was forced to adjust to the Celtics. After being met at the rim time and time again, he spent the closing minutes of the second quarter forcing the issue in transition. He got a couple of easy buckets, but when the Bucks came out of halftime, Boston was able to keep up their defensive intensity and slow him down again.
Stars come in all different shapes and sizes, but the Celtics have versatility on the defensive side of the ball to make it difficult on all of them. They control how hard they play on defense, they control what their gameplan is, and if they put in the effort, they can control the pace on that end of the court.
The Celtics still have the same personnel that made last season’s defense so dominant. Smart is still hounding guards on the perimeter, Williams is still getting healthy and ready to dominate the paint, and the rest of the squad remains intact. And while their defense isn’t as highly-praised this year, they are still a top-four team in terms of defensive rating (110.7).
But their mishaps, like allowing Porzingis to drop 32 points on them, have also shone through. They allowed Immanuel Quickley to score 38 points, leading the Knicks to a massive comeback at TD Garden. They let Mikal Bridges score 38 points while blowing a double-digit lead. They gave up 150 points to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with five OKC players cracking the 20-point mark.
Heading into the postseason, their offense will be able to win them some games, but none of that will matter if they fail to lock in on the defensive side of the court. Game planning for opposing stars, whether it be Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell, or Jimmy Butler, will be the key to success.
If they let their opponent get hot, it will be incredibly difficult to get back into things. But if they approach each contest with the same focus level they showed on Thursday night in Milwaukee, their defense will be able to lead the way throughout the playoffs.