The adage “defense wins championships” is often overused. Originally delivered by football coach Bear Bryant, the cliche has turned into an end-all, be-all when it comes to sports, including basketball. More goes into a title run than just defense.
But in the case of the Boston Celtics, when their defense is clicking on all gears, it’s easy to picture Banner 18 hanging in the rafters.
“Defense is going to help us propel to where we want to get to,” Jaylen Brown said after the Celtics’ Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat. “And defensively tonight, we weren’t good enough. We gave up 123 points. The gameplan should be defense.”
Despite their berth into Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics have not strung together consistent defensive performances throughout the playoffs. Miami tacked on 123 points, including a 46-point third quarter after Boston held the 76ers to 86 and 88 points in Game 6 and 7 respectively.
It was the Heat’s third-highest-scoring game of the postseason and the first time they’ve cracked 110 points since the first round.
Boston failed to execute on the defensive end from start to finish, but the third quarter highlighted all their failures.
“Sometimes we didn’t get back,” Jayson Tatum said of the third quarter. “We had some turnovers, spacing, defensive coverages that we got mixed up on that we went over today in shootaround. A lot of things that we can control to be better at.”
The Heat outscored the Celtics 46-25 in the third quarter, shooting 17-of-26 (65.4%) from the field and 6-of-9 (66.6%) from behind the three-point line. That included nine fast-break points, 10 second-chance points, and eight points off four Boston turnovers.
Throughout the postseason, the Heat have been hot from beyond the arc (37.8%), but Boston looked completely lost. Miami’s shooters were getting wide-open looks off of Boston’s ill-advised double teams.
Bam Adebayo was living in the restricted area, feasting on dump-off passes. Jimmy Butler destroyed the Celtics from the mid-range, kicking out to shooters when Boston sent help at him. Every decision Boston made, Miami punished.
“Lost our gameplan discipline,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “Allowed them to get out in transition and get second-chance shots. Didn’t guard the three-point line.”
But for as bad as Boston’s execution was on the defensive end, their intensity was somehow worse.
“The only thing we need to adjust to is picking up our physicality and playing some damn defense,” said Marcus Smart. “That’s the only thing that switched. They didn’t change anything from the first half that they weren’t doing. They just upped their physicality. Nothing technical, X’s and O’s. It’s just coming out and guarding your yard.”
Outside of the third, the Celtics won every single quarter. Their improved defensive intensity in the second helped them build a 13-point lead, but that all vanished in the third.
For whatever reason, Boston simply gets comfortable despite the stage, a mistake that Miami rarely makes in the playoffs.
“We get tired of doing a little thing sometimes,” Smart said. “I think that showed.”
Lackluster defensive performances have quickly become a trend for Boston this postseason. They’ve given up 115 or more points in eight of their 14 games and are 2-6 in those games. When they hold their opponent to fewer than 115, they’re 6-0.
Against the Philadelphia 76ers, they got punched in the mouth in Game 1, allowing the Joel Embiid-less squad to drop 119, including a 45-point James Harden performance. They followed up by holding the 76ers to below 90 points in three of the next six games, including in Game 7.
Yet, in Game 1 against the Heat, they reverted back to their bad tendencies.
“It’s a choice. It’s a decision,” Brown said of Boston’s physicality. “Just come out and play with a different mentality. We came out too cool. It was almost like we were playing a regular-season game. It’s the Eastern Conference Finals. Come on.”
Against a red-hot Heat team, Boston cannot afford to be subpar on the defensive end. They know that and are ready to put their Game 1 showing behind them.
“We just got to keep playing basketball,” said Brown. “We’re too far to hang our heads. We’re too far to look back and be like, ‘Oh, the series is over.’ It’s one game. So, we just got to be ready to play the next one.”