Celtics back to playing elite defense post-break

Celtics back to playing elite defense post-break

BOSTON – For two quarters of play, the New York Knicks were toe-to-toe with the Boston Celtics. 

But as the second half rolled around, Boston’s defense became even more effective, shots seemed to fall at a better clip, and what was a close game was suddenly turning into a comfortable Celtics victory with the Celtics playing the role of professors in teaching the Knicks a thing or two about what basketball erosion looks like. 


The Celtics we saw in Boston’s 121-112 win over New York was about as complete as we’ve seen the team roster-wise, has been all season. 

“Just wearing them down defensively, with the addition of (Marcus) Smart and having Shane (Larkin) come in, have everybody back,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “We can throw punches and consistently throw punches and wear teams down.”

That appeared to be what we saw on Saturday night as Boston seemingly got stronger as the game progressed, while the Knicks’ best shooters came up empty when it mattered. 

A 59-56 lead at the half, Boston would pull away by as many as 10 points (81-71) in the third quarter, and their largest lead of the game – 11 points – didn’t come until the fourth. Boston’s win at Detroit had a similar second half surge as Boston opened the fourth quarter with a 13-2 run which put them ahead 99-79 as they cruised onward for a 110-98 win. 

And so here are the Celtics, winners of two in a row after dropping three straight and four of five right before the All-Star break. 

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens acknowledged his team, like most in the NBA, may have benefited from the time off at the All-Star break. 

“We probably needed rest, but everybody needed rest,” Stevens said. “We needed to re-center ourselves and focus better and play better. I thought we played hard both nights, and certainly we can build off of that.”

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s first weekend following the All-Star break, which included road wins at Detroit and New York. 


Theis’ versatility

From a career-high 19 points against Detroit, to getting the starting nod the following night against the New York Knicks. Daniel Theis has shown himself to be up to whatever challenge he’s asked to tackle. There was some thought that the addition of Greg Monroe would cut into his minutes. But that doesn’t appear to be the case, not the way Theis has been playing regardless of the role he’s called upon to execute. 

Fly, Celtics Fly (on defense)

While Marcus Smart’s return has certainly been a plus to Boston’s defense, what we’ve seen the last two games is Boston play better team defense. And part of team defense involves rotating or tilting towards shooters if they beat one of your teammates off the dribble. While there’s still room to improve in this particular area, there’s no question they were better about closing out and rotating and just playing better, all-around team defense. 

Smart-Rozier pairing

When these guys are playing in sync like we’ve seen in these first two games coming out of the break, the Celtics’ second unit becomes special. Marcus Smart’s defense grabs all the headlines, but he has truly turned the corner this season as a playmaker. Smart averages 4.7 assists per game which ranks ninth among reserves. And Rozier continues to play with a more aggressive, attacking style ever since he stepped into the starting lineup for a few games as a fill-in for an injured Kyrie Irving. 

Greg Monroe

It’s still too soon to tell just how significant a role will Monroe play for the Celtics. But he might see a slight spike in playing time depending on how serious is the elbow injury Baynes suffered on Friday night in Detroit. 

Defense trending 

Boston definitely made strides the last two games defensively. The turnstile defense we had seen teams breeze through with little resistance was replaced by a moving wall of Celtics players. Boston has been the league’s top-ranked defense most of the season so you knew it was a matter of when, not if, their defense would get back on track. 


Celtics finding ways to win without Kyrie Irving

File Photo

Celtics finding ways to win without Kyrie Irving

As expected, Kyrie Irving’s first regular season with the Boston Celtics is over following a procedure on his left knee Saturday that team officials described as being "minimally invasive," that will keep him sidelined until the playoffs.

Not having Irving for the final 10 games of the regular season is certainly disappointing for Boston, but it won’t have the kind of devastating impact one might expect a team to have to endure when the leading scorer is out for a significant chunk of time.

Friday’s 105-100 win over Portland was Boston’s fifth straight game without Irving, and 12th this season.


There’s no question Boston is a better team when he is in the lineup.

But when he’s not, the Celtics have continued to find ways to win games which is evident in their 8-4 record when Irving has not played.

Victories over teams like the Blazers only validates the quality depth that the Celtics players speak of when they talk about their team. 

“We know what we have,” said Boston’s Al Horford. “It is encouraging for our group. And for us it’s to make sure we keep working and understand when we commit on the defensive end, we’re a tough team to beat.”

But Horford acknowledges the challenge to be successful becomes infinity greater when key players such as Irving are out.

“We can’t dwell on the guys who are not here, the guys who are injured,” Horford said. “It’s tough, but it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up and guys have really taken advantage of that opportunity. We’re trying to move forward. It’s hard but we don’t have an option.”

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 105-100 win at Portland on Friday night.


The ability to not just run a team but do so in an effective, steady manner is what separated Shane Larkin from most of the guys who saw action last night. He made timely shots, kept the ball moving (he had seven assists and just one turnover) while playing at a really good tempo which was apparent as he finished with a pace of 95.97 which was tops among all Celtics players.


Greg Monroe could not have picked a better time to play his best basketball of the season. Against the Blazers, he came off the bench and tallied a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. The 10 boards were particularly impressive with a team-best rebounding percentage of .303 and team-best usage percentage of .316 which speaks to how Boston made a point of going to Monroe early and often when he was on the floor.


It was another big-time scoring night for Marcus Morris who led all scorers with 30 points, easily becoming a fixture as Boston’s go-to guy now that Kyrie Irving (left knee) will miss the rest of the regular season. And like Irving, Morris is doing it in an extremely efficient manner. Against the Blazers, the 6-foot-8 forward was 9-for-13 (69.2 percent) shooting from the field with an effective field goal percentage eFG% of .885.


For most of Friday’s game, Jayson Tatum was not having a good game offensively with three points through three quarters of play. But Tatum, one of the NBA’s better fourth quarter players, was once again saving his best for last. He would go on to lead the Celtics with 10 points in the fourth quarter, which was a huge factor in Boston’s comeback victory.


The Celtics’ second unit looks a little different, but the production and overall impact remains strong as ever. Boston’s backups outscored their Portland brethren 26-10. But more than the points, Boston’s backups individually came up with big plays. Greg Monroe’s 10-point, 10-rebound performance stood out for obvious reasons. But the floor leadership of Shane Larkin and timely contributions from Guerschon Yabusele was also important in the win.


Blakely: Stevens has this coaching in March stuff down

Blakely: Stevens has this coaching in March stuff down

Sometimes we forget that a big part of why Brad Stevens is in Boston is because of what he has done as a coach this time of year.

He led a pair of Butler teams to deep postseason runs before coming up short in a pair of national title games.

Well, he’s embarking on a different kind of March Madness in leading the Celtics to a string of improbable wins, the latest being a 105-100 victory at Portland on Friday night.

It was the kind of victory that when you start to roll out the reasons why Stevens should be this season’s Coach of the Year winner, folks will use the win at Portland as an example.

The Blazers are not only one of the better teams at home, but they came in having won 13 of 14 games with the lone loss coming to Houston, which has the best record in the NBA.

But what made the victory so unexpected was the cut-and-paste lineup Stevens has employed because of a long rash of injuries.

Kyrie Irving missed his fifth consecutive game and is expected to be lost for another three to six weeks after having a procedure to on Saturday to help alleviate some of the soreness in his left knee.

Jaylen Brown has missed several games with a concussion, but he has progressed to where he's now questionable for the game in Sacramento on Sunday night. 

Boston was also without Marcus Smart (right thumb) who won’t be back until sometime in the playoffs.

And that doesn’t factor in Gordon Hayward (dislocated left ankle) or Daniel Theis (torn meniscus, left knee), both out for the season.

It’s easy to chalk up Stevens’ success to great Xs and O’s work.

But he’s doing more than that.

He’s inspiring a level of confidence in players that generated results exceeding all expectations; that is, expectations outside of their locker room.

Even when this team struggled with no clear signs of hope on the horizon, they didn’t blink.

Rather than use their less-than-ideal state as a justification for poor play, they funneled that energy and focus into becoming a better team - not better players, but a better team.

Because frankly, that is what we’ve seen from this group all season. Of course, you have your star in Irving, but this team has been a get-it-done-or-else squad all year that doesn’t get too locked into the success or struggles of any one teammate.

And that has allowed Boston to withstand the kind of injuries to key players that would have crippled many other teams.

But with the lack of bodies, there has been a lack of respect for how good this team really is.

Stevens has tapped into that and used it to help focus this team on playing great and most important, giving themselves a chance to win regardless of the opponent, regardless of how dire a situation may be.

And that has created the kind of March Madness Celtics fans are absolutely lovin’ right now.