Celtics-Heat preview: Defense in focus

Celtics-Heat preview: Defense in focus

BOSTON – On Thursday night, Jayson Tatum scored 12 points which included a basket in the fourth quarter that gave Boston its biggest lead of the night, 12 points, before settling in for a 96-89 win at Milwaukee.

Just 24 hours earlier, Philadelphia’s Markelle Fultz was inactive (shoulder) in the Sixers’ 105-104 home loss to Houston and will remain that way for at least two more games.

It’s still early, but the Celtics are off to a fast start when it comes to which team came out ahead in the trade prior to last June’s draft that netted the Celtics Tatum who was chosen with the third overall pick while the Sixers took Fultz with the top overall pick.

Statistically speaking, it’s not even close.


Tatum has better numbers when it comes to scoring (14.2 versus 6.0), rebounds (6.6 versus 2.3), assists (2.0 versus 1.8) and minutes played (33.0 versus 18.9).

And his defense?

That’s better in many areas as well, including defensive rating (94.5 for Tatum, 106.8 for Fultz).

But the biggest benefit more than anything else with Boston winding up with Tatum, is his impact on winning which the Celtics (3-2) are hoping to continue doing tonight at Miami.

The 6-foot-8 rookie was praised for his shooting touch that was aided by having exceptional footwork which reminded some of Celtics legend Paul Pierce, when Tatum left Duke after just one season.

But Tatum’s time on the floor with the Celtics has been largely due to what he does as a defender, something that will be once again put to the test tonight against the Heat.

Like the Celtics, the Miami Heat play a brand of position-less basketball with multiple ball-handlers who can bring the floor up and initiate the offense on their own. All of Miami’s projected starters tonight except center Bam Adebayo (he’s in for Hassan Whiteside who is out with a bruised left knee injury) fall under that category.

But unlike the Celtics, Miami’s defense has not benefited from having that kind of versatility. Of course, Whiteside being out for all but the season-opener, has been a key to the Heat’s defensive struggles.

In four games this season, the Heat has a defensive rating of 107.7 which ranks No. 23 in the NBA while the Celtics’ defensive rating of 95.9 which ranks third in the league.

Having players who can seamlessly shift from one position to another, are becoming increasingly more valuable in the NBA today.

Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics have had their sights on adding players with a versatile skill set for years.

Leading up to the 2015 NBA draft, the Celtics were extremely eager to trade up to acquire a player like that.

His name is Justise Winslow, who wound up being selected by the Heat with the 10th overall pick.

Injuries have limited Winslow’s impact in Miami, but he has shown promise defensively due to his size (6-7, 225), strength and ability to defend multiple positions.

When it comes to defending different types of players, the play of Al Horford has really stood out this season for Boston.

They come into tonight’s game having won three in a row, with each of those wins being fueled in large part by Horford’s play defensively.  

But in Thursday’s win over Milwaukee, Horford also came up big offensively with a season-high 27 points to go with nine rebounds and four assists.

Now in his 11th NBA season, Horford has an eye for players with the potential to play at a high level at both ends of the floor.


Horford said earlier that Tatum is “as ready” a rookie as he’s ever played with.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has echoed similar praise for the 19-year-old Tatum, which has the team’s decision to trade away the top overall pick in last June’s NBA draft to go down two spots and use the pick to get Tatum and a future first-round pick, one that has paid off already.

“He’s going to be a really good NBA player for a long time,” Stevens said of Tatum. “He brings a lot to the table, and he’s really smart. He has a savvy that I think you can tell when he’s out on the court.”


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. 


Marcus Smart makes the Celtics great again

Marcus Smart makes the Celtics great again

Two games in and the return of Marcus Smart has had the effect many predicted it would for Boston.

There may be other Celtics who score more points, tally more assists and snare a few more rebounds.

But the impact of Smart’s play on what truly matters – winning – is undeniable.

His play was one of the keys to Boston’s 121-112 win at New York on Saturday night.

Smart came off the bench to score 11 points to go with five assists and three steals.

In his two games back, Smart is averaging 11.5 points, 5.5 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 64.3 percent from the field.

Yes, it’s a small sample size for sure.

More than anything, it serves as a reminder of how one of Smart’s greatest assets as a player is his ability to contribute in a multitude of ways.

“He just adds a lot of versatility to our offense and our defense,” Boston’s Kyrie Irving told NBC Sports Boston following Saturday’s game. “He has a high awareness on both ends. He’s able to create opportunities for all of us at both ends of the floor and we appreciate that.”

Certainly Smart is credited for being a good defender, and his play-making skills have improved dramatically in the last year or so.

But arguably Smart’s biggest contribution is that his play allows others around him, to focus on whatever it is that they do well, knowing that Smart has the ability to do both his job as well as provide help when needed.

Boston’s defense struggled mightily before the break with teams scoring seemingly whenever they wanted to.

But in the last two games, Boston has looked more like the defensive unit that has been among the NBA’s best most of this season.

In the last two games, Boston’s defensive rating has been 104.5 which ranks 11th in the NBA during that span.

Several factors have played a role in Boston’s improved defense the last two games; among them being the return of Smart who missed 11 games after punching a picture frame last month that left him with 20 stitches.

“It’s the appreciation of Marcus Smart right there,” Irving said. “Implement him and him just putting his stamp and identity on our team as well. It just makes a lot of other guy’s job, easier. Because he covers up a lot of our mistakes as well as playing with unbelievable awareness at both ends of the floor. He understands spacing, he understands how the little things matter.”