Ime Udoka never married himself to the switch-heavy defensive scheme that occasionally baffled fans and challenged his team through a 2-5 start to the season.
The Celtics lagged behind the league average in defensive rating while sending bigs Al Horford and Robert Williams III to guard the perimeter leaving opponents free to attack Grant Williams if they wished. Boston obliged — offering every switch — even away from the ball.
“For me, it’s tough,” Dennis Schröder said after Boston’s first preseason game. “I’ve never been in an organization where we just switch everything. I have to adjust to it a little bit more, but I’m getting used to it a little bit. Just day-by-day try to get better at it … the point switching, sometimes when you switch everything you get a little bit lazy, and just don’t communicate, don’t come together on some switches.”
Injuries and COVID-19 cases in training camp made Udoka view the opening weeks of the season as an extended training camp. Boston stayed deliberate and excessive in how often they switched as a point of repetition, while Udoka committed to trying different things eventually. He made adjustments late in the game to switch 1-through-4 at New York, and got away from that in Charlotte. Then in Florida, bigger shifts happened. The Celtics utilized zone, drop defense and brought more help off-ball to become more disruptive. They held the Magic to 79 and the Heat to 78 one night later, boosting Boston into the top-10 with a 105.4 defensive rating.
“We’ve also implemented some other things,” Udoka said in mid-October. “Last few days we’ve added to the repertoire defensively, and have a few different options to go at, but (switching) is something we really want to get good at. We saw that progression throughout the preseason. It’s not natural for everybody, we kind of reverse-engineered it as far as we went the way we went through it with the switching on and off-ball, something they’re not accustomed to and wanted to really work on that, hammer that home first and then we can get back to more traditional coverages.”
Miami provided the perfect opponent to test Horford in some drop coverage against, as a low-volume three point shooting team that sends Bam Adebayo downhill regularly following his screen action. Horford’s instincts, hands and early-season block spree make him an intriguing drop candidate, averaging a league-best 3.0 rejections per night to start this year.
Allowing Marcus Smart to hedge some screens and roam to help created havoc all game too. He blew up pick actions, one of his best attributes as a defender, when the Heat tried to bounce around them to pull-up with Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. An aggressive approach forced 18 Miami turnovers, including 10 in the second quarter while the Celtics held the Heat to 3-of-13 shooting.
“Credit our guys,” Udoka said. “We switched up our coverages, we felt good about our guys guarding their perimeter guys, our bigs. And then especially when Bam was out of the game, we felt good about switching our smalls onto their post. They did a great job limiting those guys, Duncan Robinson, I think 3-for-4 first quarter and then 0-for-4 second quarter, we locked in on some specifics … the energy, focus and attention to detail is what we’re talking about … focusing on the things that hurt us early.”
Romeo Langford’s return to wing-heavy second units made an outsized impact as Udoka credited the bench’s scoring to hammering home a blowout victory. Boston outscored Miami by 25 points with Langford on the floor, whose awareness in the switching scheme, off-ball shooting and cutting, along with his long arms that effectively contested shots through screen action like on a Herro corner miss raised the Celtics’ defensive level.
His switch onto Adebayo mid-roll and ability to front him into a turnover probably marked the best defensive rotation of the season from Boston. That effort and attention to detail showed what this group is capable of on the defensive end when locked-in.
“Everyones locked in one-through-five,” Langford said. “We guarded throughout the whole possessions … we limited those guys to second-chance points and guarded our man individually, and we did that throughout the whole game even when we were up, because we knew from last time we were up, we kind of slacked off and that’s how the other team got back. I felt we played a complete game and finished our possessions tonight.”
— Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning) November 5, 2021
That went for Jaylen Brown especially, who contributed one of his great lockdown performances in recent memory against Herro. Herro had broken the NBA record for scoring off the bench through a player’s first seven games of the season, and Boston limited him to six points on Thursday after averaging over 22 points per game to that point.
Herro shot 0-for-1 playing against Brown for seven possessions, including a hand-clapping moment of intensity from Brown, who had his best two-way performance in recent memory before hamstring tightness knocked him out late. Udoka said Brown’s removal was precautionary, given his past bouts with that ailment.
Schematically, the third quarter featured more zone from the Celtics to mixed results. The Heat swung the ball comfortably against it and Boston lost cutters, specifically in transition. P.J. Tucker and Herro got wide open threes in space that fell flat, while Kyle Lowry’s general sloppiness on the ball handed the Celtics easy steal opportunities.
Jayson Tatum’s engagement through an 0-for-7, 0-point start through three quarters proved encouraging too. He kept the complaining to a minimum, allowing Udoka to pick up a technical for him, and played into an active off-ball night for Boston’s defenders.
The Celtics’ transition defense saw a boost too, thanks in part to an active performance from Aaron Nesmith. Nesmith added 3-for-5 three-point shooting to buoy Boston’s offense. While the defensive tendencies making Udoka and his staff uneasy about playing the second-year wing appeared, including awkward approaches to screen plays and long paths to contesting shots, he made a difference with hustle. Smart, Langford and Nesmith ranked among the most consistent players back defending Miami’s break.
Nesmith bothered Adebayo, one of the top per-game scorers on the run early this season. His sprinting contest on a long pass by Herro made the catch tougher for Adebayo, who came up lame and turned the ball over. Another stop in transition featured Nesmith tipping the ball directly off Markieff Morris out-of-bounds.
Elsewhere, Boston switched less away from the ball, communicated and Horford’s amorphous role around the paint made him all the more dangerous. His driving, one-handed slam marked the highlight of his night. I loved a sneaky help side block while playing the drop that Herro never saw coming.
Smart pulled the same kind of sneak attack on Jimmy Butler to force a turnover earlier in the game. Then he jumped into the lane to take a charge on the next play. Udoka’s wrinkles followed a similar uptick of zone and drop in the Chicago and Orlando games, alongside less aggressive switching. The Celtics emerged as the top shot-blocking team in the NBA early this year, with a plus double-big lineup and finally showcasing defensive dominance that will need to drive the team. Without great playmaking or shooting, they’ll need to turn defense into offense.
“We really emphasized switching on and off ball, the communication piece,” Udoka said early in training camp. “We’ll go game-to-game and obviously it’ll be personnel-based, but it’s something we’ve had them do … to get them used to that … it’s definitely a game-by-game plan, but that’s one of our coverages for sure.”