BOSTON — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had found success against Boston’s switching defense, Durant largely shaking the Jayson Tatum matchup to slam the breaks on Robert Williams III and shoot over him. Seth Curry and Irving turned the corner on Horford attacking downhill. Brooklyn shot 49% and scored 60 points on the vaunted Celtics defense through two quarters, appearing more than capable of shooting over it.
The Celtics stormed into halftime on an 11-6 swing, offensively, to go from down seven points to within two points of the Nets on Monday.
The Nets decided to make an adjustment out of halftime. They saw Boston blitzing their stars, often showing two against Durant. Williams III guarded the interior by leaving Bruce Brown. So Brooklyn threw the ball to their fifth option for five of the team’s 17 shots to begin the third quarter, and while it started hot, with Brown scoring 10 points in the third quarter, it pulled shots away from sharpshooters in Irving, Curry and Durant. It took the Nets out of their offense, and when Brooklyn went back to Brown in the fourth quarter, he missed a wide open layup down by six points as the Celtics went on to score a 126-120 win, their biggest of the season.
“We had a scheme to go in and we were going to mix it up. We weren’t going to let KD or Kyrie just see one option,” Marcus Smart said post-game. “We’re going to throw everything we had at him and just mix it up. Ime gave us a lot of freedom to really make plays whenever we feel fit to do that. It’s a lot of times where we just left our guys and trusted that the guy behind us was going to be there, because we were making a play and that comes along with the growth and maturity of this team, and the chemistry. Being able to get some games in to understand that when one guy takes off to make a play. We need to be able to make a play for him as well.”
While Sunday didn’t qualify as a lockdown defensive performance, the Celtics showed the next layer in their rise of a uniquely versatile unit battling modern basketball with unmatched switching. Randomness. It stemmed back to Tuesday’s win over pick-and-roll maestro Trae Young and his Hawks.
Ime Udoka commanded the Celtics to play more aggressive if they’re caught in-between actions that Atlanta ran. If you can’t pull off the switch, why not fully commit and trap, double and rotate behind? Boston did that more intentionally against deadly isolation players in Irving and Durant to take the ball out of their hands.
Where’d the ball land? Nic Claxton, Andre Drummond and LaMarcus Aldridge took 19 shots underneath the basket. Brown attempted 10 shots, more than Curry, Goran Dragic and Patty Mills. Irving fired 18 shots, below his season average, while Durant launched only one more than his usual 20. Brown, meanwhile, shot four more times than he typically does. The Celtics seemed to funnel the ball to him, whether he would made it or not.
Other times, The Nets strangely forced the ball to him as if attacking Williams III downhill in isolation is wise.
As noted last month, part of the thinking behind the Celtics’ defensive scheme is to make opponents run awkward pick-and-rolls, put their weakest offensive link in unusual attacking positions and utilizing their unwillingness to defer by having Williams III in help position. It kept the Nets taking jump shots.
“A little bit on our heels in the first quarter,” Udoka said on the defense. “The aggressiveness wasn’t where we needed to be as far as pick up points and physicality on the switches. But it got better throughout the game and they were making some tough shots and we continued to grind away and those shots didn’t fall at the same level throughout the game. Stay with what we do. Mix in some blitzes and traps to keep guys off balance and live with the result.”
Sunday’s win ultimately became about Tatum having his best game ever leading the offense and scoring every time the Celtics needed it late. The team ran its best set all season to get Jaylen Brown a wide open three in the corner kill 24 seconds and go ahead 121-115 with 39 seconds remaining. Boston shot 4-for-7 in clutch time, with three assists, matching Brooklyn’s output, and by that time already having the lead in hand from their run against the Nets’ bench midway through the quarter. During that sequence, Payton Pritchard and the rest of the lineup pulled off some sensational scramble switching to escape the mismatches the Nets tried to create.
The win flashed Boston’s offensive progress, they’re now No. 2 in offense since the trade deadline over 10 games, but the game proved to be the ultimate barometer for their defense. It kept the team with the most offensive firepower in the league guessing. One that had the isolation play and shooting prone to disrupt Boston’s defense.
The Pacers put to tape last week how difficult it’d be to crack Boston’s defensive scheme. Tyrese Haliburton hit circus shots in the lane and manipulated the Celtics’ pick-and-roll defense alignment while Buddy Hield hit eight pull-up shots in isolation. Indiana shot over 50% from three, like the Pistons did in their victory over the Celtics before the all-star break. Brooklyn’s 44.4% shooting from deep and the 56 points Irving and Durant poured in attacking Celtics defenders head-on wasn’t enough.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the game going another way. The margin for error was minimal. Like Memphis on Thursday, Brooklyn’s bigs and Brown tortured the Celtics on the offensive glass to give the Nets six more shots attempts than Boston. Every Tatum basket late proved crucial. Maybe Ben Simmons would swing it in the future. Sean Grande noted that the team had long losing streaks when allowing 120 points or giving up that kind of rebound advantage. Defense won’t make the Celtics a championship slam dunk. It does give them the tools needed to win games like Sunday’s — a playoff style game.
The defense didn’t break, at times played disruptively. Daniel Theis played surprising minutes and stopped several Durant shots on switches and twice forced Irving live ball turnovers in the second half.
Williams III got to play the middle the way he wants to away from covering Brown. As Smart mentioned recently, that allows the Celtics’ perimeter defenders to challenge their assignments more aggressively. Brown attacked the ball and scored key points in transition all afternoon.
Tatum went after Durant and forced the ball out-of-bounds off him on one play. Smart and Brown made life difficult for Irving and Curry. The Celtics’ defense couldn’t retain No. 1 status giving up the points it did, but their scheme held against the highest degree of difficult opponent it’ll face and proved it might be the edge Boston has in its budding case that the team can win an NBA championship.
“A lot of the things we were doing on that defensive end were on the fly,” Smart said. “We were executing it perfectly. Against two of the greatest, that’s tough to do, especially on the fly. You got plays we’re switching, got mismatches all over and we’re helping each other out. The shows the best of a good team. And that’s what we’re becoming. A really, really good team and when you’ve got a team that’s locked in, we feel like we can beat anybody.”