Prior to Friday’s matchup with the Utah Jazz, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla didn’t seem to think his team was elite yet. After a 126-97 blowout, It’s safe to say Boston belongs in the upper echelon category of superior defensive teams in the NBA.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown set the tone with early explosive back-to-back blocks. Missing their first nine shots of the game, the Jazz scored just 15 points in the first quarter, on 5-27 (18.5 percent) field goal shooting, and 1-12 (8.3 percent) from downtown. According to NBC Sports Boston statistician Dick Lipe, this is the 3rd time since Dec. 12 that all 5 Celtic starters have blocked at least 1 shot. The last time Boston did it 3 times in a season was 1991.
Boston pushed the pace tonight and forced the Jazz into uncomfortable shots. While they had some clean looks, Utah looked flat and disheveled. Unable to take care of the ball, the C’s capitalized, scoring 26 fast break points off 18 turnovers. What continues to impress is the way Jrue Holiday and Derrick White switch on screens around the perimeter, while defending in the post.
Speaking of Jrue Holiday, his ability to pick up in transition, and read plays defensively in the low post is remarkable. Guarding Collin Sexton is not an easy task, and having the ability to strip him on the baseline showcased his full awareness.
Up 64-33, Boston kept their foot on the gas, playing stalwart defense. Even Tatum was able to stop Sexton, who’s an extremely fast and athletic guard. Forcing Sexton out of bounds while staying in front of him up thirty points spoke volumes.
What a defensive statement for the Celtics.— Sara Jane Gamelli (@SaraJGamelli) January 6, 2024
12-2 run vs the Jazz
Tatum/ Brown with a block each
Utah is shooting 0-9 from the field
Boston is doing an excellent job of attacking the mismatches, especially Fontecchio.#celtics #DifferentHere
Overall, the Jazz were held to an underwhelming 17.6 percent from deep, and 36.2 percent from the floor. Utah’s starters combined for 20-50 shooting from the field, and 2-17 from deep.
Ahead of tipoff, Jazz head coach Will Hardy predicted how suffocating Mazzulla’s defensive scheme would be. Ranked third in defensive rating (110.9), Boston leads the league in defensive rebounds per game (36) and are currently tied with the Indiana Pacers for the most blocks per game (6.5).
“They can play with a lot of variety on the defensive end because of the matchup,” Hardy told the media pregame. “Their individual defense is probably as good as anybody in the league, top to bottom.”
Mazzulla says this Celtics defense is so potent because his club can borrow from the unique systems both Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka (and Will Hardy) helped establish— Cameron Tabatabaie (@CTabatabaie) January 6, 2024
He says it gives this group the perspective, skill, and practice to be very versatile pic.twitter.com/4wfrXyggCS
Hardy has familiarity with the Celtics system, serving as an assistant during the 2021-2022 season. Mazzulla also an assistant at the time and both learned defensive schemes under former head coach Ime Udoka.
“The team had a system when Brad [Stevens] was here. It was a rules-based system. There was an answer for everything. You guard everything the exact same way,” Mazzulla said. “Very fortunate to see that system. When Will [Hardy] and Ime [Udoka] were here, it was a little bit more switching.”
Under the defensive principles set by Brad Stevens, Mazzulla’s been able to evolve these systems into his own.
“Because of that foundation, we were able to recreate with our switching,” said Mazzulla. “I still think we can grow and get better.”
The Celtics held their opponent to under 100 points for the sixth time this season. After last night’s performance, the Celtics defense is, in fact, ELITE.