When the Boston Celtics are at their best on the defensive end, they’re the best team in the NBA. They’re able to play with the perfect blend of force and discipline; they show bodies in all of the important help positions, they fly out to shooters on closeouts, and they communicate and rotate and zone up effectively on the weak side, all while not falling for pump fakes and foul-baiting techniques.
The problem is that up until Game 4 against the Heat – in other words, through two and a half playoff series – the C’s were unable to achieve that level of defensive connectivity and togetherness. In fact, they couldn’t even come close.
The difference between what Boston looks like when they’re playing poorly on defense (how they looked for the majority of the ATL and PHI series) and what they looked like in Game 5 is perhaps the most baffling disparity in the league. No other team has such an egregious drop off between their best effort and their worst. Just look at Game 3 and then look at Game 5 of the current series – it’s tough to fathom that those efforts came from the same team.
The Celtics’ level of defensive intensity and force has thus become the litmus test for how invested they are in the game. (Don’t ask me why they can’t be invested in every game. I’ve been trying to figure that out for a couple of years now). And if you had to pick a singular player that is the litmus test for the litmus test – that is, one player whose level of defensive force and vigor could accurately predict the entire team’s intensity and effort level on the defensive end – it would, in my opinion, be Jayson Tatum.
As stark as the deviation between the Celtics’ locked–in defense and their lackadaisical defense is, the difference is even more prominent for Jayson Tatum individually. He can go from looking like a legitimately average NBA defender to a top-5 defensive player in the league; when he’s focused and playing with effort and force, Jayson Tatum is a first team All–Defense.
In Game 5, Jayson showed flashes of his true defensive potential (we’ll get to what peak defensive JT looks like later). He didn’t sustain it for the entire game, but he was a defensive nightmare for Miami to handle at times.
Part of what makes Tatum so impactful defensively is his size and athleticism, and subsequently, his versatility. He’s able to guard every single player on the Heat, because he’s sturdy and tough enough to hang with guys like Bam Adebayo and Cody Zeller but also laterally quick and agile enough to stay with Jimmy Butler and Gabe Vincent.
Here, Deuce’s dad bodies up Adebayo on the baseline and gives him absolutely nothing at the rim. Bam thinks he’s strong enough to shoulder Tatum backwards and sneak up under the left side of the hoop, but Tatum is too strong.
Tatum is able to guard Adebayo – with a nice dig in and help from Marcus Smart and the Grant and Rob Williams’ tandem – in semi-isolation pretty effectively. Even though he gets pushed backwards, Jayson is long enough to get a really solid contest on a lucky bank shot.
As I said earlier, Tatum is also able to defend Jimmy. Not only that, but he’s probably the most preferable Celtics matchup against the star wing.
Here, Jayson gets called for a bogus foul, but you can tell he’s locked in and ready to slide his feet against Butler.
Tatum’s size and athleticism are so effective; just a complete isolation take from Butler, and he can’t find anything on JT. The Celtics need to find more ways to find this defensive matchup (STOP SOFT SWITCHING TATUM OFF OF JIMMY, JOE).
When I think of peak Tatum defensively, I think of Round 1 last season against Brooklyn. His level of commitment to sliding his feet, fighting over screens, and contesting without fouling was unlike anything I’ve seen from him since (except for short, inconsistent flashes during this season’s NBA Playoffs).
Check out a few of these incredible defensive plays from just Game 1 against the Nets. Tatum was as locked in as I’ve seen him, and if he can reach that level against the Heat moving forward, he’ll greatly increase Boston’s chances of continuing their defensive dominance.
More of this, JT!