MIAMI -- The Boston Celtics have made defense the calling card of their 2022 playoff run. Now, there is an opportunity for this team to not only chase an 18th banner on the strength of their defensive depth but potentially wiggle their way into the conversation about some of the elite team defenses in recent memory.
The Celtics secured early-round triumphs by making life more difficult than usual for Kevin Durant’s Nets and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. Depth issues made it easier to commit energy to those superstar talents.
Boston’s challenge when it tips Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals here on Tuesday night is finding a way to maintain their stinginess against a team with more weapons than they’ve seen to this point.
The Heat lack a superstar scorer but can spread the scoring wealth and Jimmy Butler is an elite crunch-time bucket-producer. The Celtics better have packed their hard hats once more for a series that ought to be defined again by its physicality.
Boston’s ability to leave the Bucks running in quicksand during all halfcourt opportunities last round was simply jarring. The absence of Khris Middleton left Milwaukee vulnerable and the Celtics wouldn’t let Antetokounmpo beat them on his own.
They need to bring the same sort of energy and commitment to team defense against the Heat.
But just look at what Boston did against the Bucks. Here is Milwaukee’s offensive rating by game (with percentile rank) in halfcourt, per Cleaning the Glass data:
The Celtics owned the NBA’s best halfcourt defense this past season, allowing a measly 90.4 points per 100 possessions. In the playoffs, that number has dipped to 87.6.
That’s not exactly 2004 Pistons level of stinginess. That group smothered opponents while allowing a mere 73.2 points per 100 possessions that postseason. But Boston’s marks are close to its 2008 brethren, which limited opponents to a halfcourt offensive rating of 83.4 during the run to Banner 17.
Like that season, the Celtics have a Defensive Player of the Year but also benefit from a nine-man core in which every single player is committed to the defensive end.
The health of Marcus Smart (questionable for Game 1 due to a mid-foot sprain) could be critical to Boston’s defensive success. The team could also get a defensive jolt if Robert Williams is healthier after missing much of the first two rounds with knee ailments (first recovering from meniscus surgery, then suffering a bone bruise on the same knee).
"Just guys that take pride in defending, playing the right way, and it’s contagious," said Al Horford, who took the brunt of defending Antetokounmpo. "We’re all out there and we’re all trying to do our best. We’re very engaged in that, and our defense is what’s gotten us to this point."
But Horford also knows the intensity is about to jump up.
"It's the playoffs, and I feel like the deeper that you go, it's more intense, it's physical," said Horford. "Even though the first round was very physical for us, it's not going to be any different. Both teams play hard, but both teams defensively are our tops in the league, or one of the best for sure. So that's what it is at this point. It's just a given that both teams are gonna go hard."
The Celtics posted a defensive rating of 99.7 in the conference semifinals. The next closest team in that round was Miami at 105 during its six-game triumph over the 76ers.
Two years ago when these two teams met in the East finals inside the bubble, Miami was able to pick on Boston’s smaller guards, especially Kemba Walker and Brad Wanamaker, while prevailing in that series. The Celtics also had Gordon Hayward playing on one healthy foot and lacked adequate big-man depth with Daniel Theis playing the majority of minutes against Bam Adebayo.
Now Horford is there to hold down the back line. Derrick White takes the defensive baton when Smart goes to the bench. WIlliams played only 27 minutes in three games during that bubble series and should have a greater role if healthy. Even Grant Williams, so solid during the 2020 trek, logged only 50 minutes in six games that series.
Grant WIlliams could be vital this round. Having already taken on the challenge of checking Durant and Antetokounmpo for long stretches, his next task could be making life tough for former high school rival Adebayo.
A healthy Robert Williams adds some spice to Boston’s defense and would help the Celtics contest Miami’s 3-point shooters with his athleticism.
Celtics wing defenders did a solid job against Butler in 2020. The trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Smart held him to 14 of 47 shooting (29.8 percent) in that series. The Heat made things tough on Tatum too that year, which could put an even greater priority on the Celtics’ defense to limit the output needed to win these games.
Boston, even as its offense launched in the second half of the season, has rarely been concerned with style points. Defense has to be the priority this round while simply valuing the ball and staying committed to ball movement can maximize offensive opportunities.
The Celtics have set the defensive tone this postseason. It cannot relent this round. Miami’s depth produces new challenges.
Prediction: Celtics in 6