Celtics

Celtics' Gordon Hayward explains why defense will be 'huge emphasis' in NBA restart

Celtics' Gordon Hayward explains why defense will be 'huge emphasis' in NBA restart

The Boston Celtics have been one of the NBA's best defensive teams during the 2019-20 season, and they'll need to continue that strong play to make a deep playoff run in Orlando.

The league will resume its season later this month at Walt Disney World Resort, where 22 teams are scheduled to play eight additional seeding games before 16 clubs will take part in a normal four-round playoffs using the Best-of-7 format. 

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Celtics news and analysis

It's going to take time for players to regain their chemistry with teammates after having several months away from each other amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This scenario is among the reasons why Celtics forward Gordon Hayward feels that defense will be more important than ever when games begin.

"I think we're all going to learn what's the most important thing heading into a shortened season, or what do you need the most," Hayward told reporters in a video conference call Friday. "I think there's going to be a huge emphasis on defense, because without a doubt the offense might be a bit further behind just as far as -- we haven't played together, we haven't been with each other. And that usually takes time, that takes a season to kind of get your groove going to where by the end of the year, you know exactly the plays that work really well, where you're going to get your shots. You have this great rythmn that you get into -- this zone you get into.

"I'm confident we'll get into that, but it certainly takes a lot longer than the defensive side, where I think our versatility should help us a lot. I think our depth should help us a lot, especially on (the defensive) end. If our offense is maybe not as crisp at first, we'll give ourselves a chance by being really tough defensively. So that for sure will be an emphasis for us and other teams as well."

The Celtics rank fourth in defensive rating (106.2) and they've allowed the second-fewest points per game (106.8), while also ranking fourth in defensive field goal percentage (44.2), third in defensive 3-point percentage (34.2) and 11th in rebounds per game (44.3). 

Hayward is absolutely right -- Boston's versatility on defense is a huge advantage. Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart all are capable of guarding three or more positions. This means they can switch most pick-and-rolls and not get caught in too many mismatches. It's a great luxury for a coach, particularly in an era where small-ball lineups are everywhere.

The Celtics are capable of outscoring teams as well. In fact, they are the only team in the league with three players averaging 20-plus points per game. But if the C's are going to make a deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the defensive end of the floor likely will be the reason they succeed. 

Celtics Talk Podcast: If 76ers pull off upset, who will be their X-factor?

Celtics Talk Podcast: If 76ers pull off upset, who will be their X-factor?

The Boston Celtics will begin their road to Banner 18 on Monday when they take on the Philadelphia 76ers in the Orlando bubble.

A few months ago, a C's-Sixers playoff series likely would have been considered a toss-up. But with Ben Simmons (knee) out for the season and Philadelphia's defense struggling mightily in Florida, Boston enters the first round as the heavy favorite.

It still won't be a cakewalk for the Celtics, however. They'll still have to find a way to limit Sixers star Joel Embiid, and they'll need All-Star point guard Kemba Walker to be himself after spending the seeding round on a minutes restriction.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-76ers, which begins Monday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

If the 76ers do find a way to pull off the upset, who will be their X-factor? Chris Forsberg, A. Sherrod Blakely, and Kyle Draper discuss with Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Enquirer on a brand new episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast.

Celtics Talk Podcast: The Al Horford conundrum and why Sixers won’t last long vs. Celtics | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

"I think it depends on Tobias Harris right about now," Pompey said. "I think Tobias Harris has to be the man. Right now, Tobias Harris is the highest-paid Sixer. He's a 'fringe All-Star.' And I think he tends to play better when Ben [Simmons] is not around, or Joel. When one of the two are missing, he plays well because he gets more touches. I think Tobias has to take charge and be that guy for them to win.

"Also, secondly, I think Josh Richardson has to play great. Those two guys play well, the Sixers may win a couple of games. I don't see them winning the series at all, but Tobias has to play well for them to steal this thing."

The crew also discusses whether we may be underestimating the 76ers, how C's stack up with the rest of the East, who will fill the void for Simmons, and much more.

Check out the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast on your favorite podcast app or watch it on YouTube below.

Celtics-76ers Preview: Can Kemba Walker break out of his Philly slump?

Celtics-76ers Preview: Can Kemba Walker break out of his Philly slump?

Twenty-one months ago, Kemba Walker dropped a career high 60 points on the Philadelphia 76ers, so it would be a bit shortsighted to suggest that Walker has any sort of a Philly problem.

But here’s the reality from Walker’s first season in Boston: In three games against the Sixers, Walker shot a mere 37.3 percent overall. He averaged 22.3 points but on 19.7 shots per game. The Celtics owned a team-worst net rating of minus-17.7 during Walker’s 103 minutes of floor time against Philadelphia, a span in which the Celtics were outscored by a total of 34 points. Boston went 0-3 in those games.

While Walker’s performance during seeding games eased concerns about the balky left knee that hindered him before the 2019-20 season paused, one of the big questions for Boston entering a first-round series against the 76ers is whether Walker can play to his All-Star standards and spearhead Boston’s offense against a team that often flustered the Celtics with its size and length this season.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-76ers, which begins Monday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Walker is vital to Boston’s offensive success. The Celtics posted a team-best offensive rating of 115.2 this season when Walker was on the court and that dipped to 109.4 when he was on the bench.

As much as Walker passed the eyeball test inside the bubble, looking spry and swift, the team’s starters didn’t put up their typically glossy offensive numbers. Given the way the Sixers can make things difficult on the defensive end, it’s crucial that Walker has that first unit firing on all cylinders in the postseason.

That starts with Walker being able to create his own offense.

The 76ers will deploy some of their bigger guards against Walker, including 6-foot-5 Josh Richardson, who had nearly three times as many matchup minutes against Walker as the now-sidelined Ben Simmons did during the regular season. Walker can also expect a healthy dose of rookie reserve Matisse Thybulle, another 6-foot-5 wing who made things particularly difficult on him.

The Richardson-Thybulle combo accounted for a total of 21 minutes of matchup time over three games and limited Walker to 27 points on 34.7 percent shooting (8 of 23 overall) including just 28.6 percent (4 of 14) beyond the 3-point arc, per the NBA’s matchup tracking. What’s more, Walker had more turnovers (five) than assists (four) against those defenders. Thybulle also blocked Walker's shot four times and his length can really disrupt the smaller guard out past the 3-point line.

 

The Sixers’ size simply makes everything a little bit more difficult for Walker. They can fight over screens and still contest pull-up jumper and they can close out to the 3-point line with a long arm extended as he rises. Walker made just 9 of 28 above-the-break 3-pointers against Philadelphia, a spot where he shot 38.8 percent against all other teams.

But where the Sixers can really make things tough on Walker is when he tries to score near the basket. Walker connected on just 2 of 8 shots in the restricted area this season against Philadelphia, and went 3 of 9 from inside the paint. Whether it’s Joel Embiid or Al Horford, or a combination of both, the Sixers will scramble to help whenever Walker attacks off the pick-and-roll. 

 

So, what does Walker need to do to thrive against the Sixers’ size? Rewinding to that 60-point outburst in November 2018 offers some clues, especially considering he had almost the same number of field goals that night (21) as he did this entire season against Philly (22). 

Even with Jimmy Butler hounding him for much of the night, Walker was able to attack the basket and finish through contact. He was 9 of 13 at the rim, often charging off screens beyond the 3-point arc and getting to the rim before Embiid could even arrive with help. He didn’t get rattled when some early layups didn’t fall and used body control to muscle home tough finishes. He pulled up in the mid-range when Embiid sank towards the hoop.

[embed <iframe width="640" height="360" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LEkEHzsx4-0" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe> [/embed]

If the Sixers are going to have success in this series, they’re going to have to muddy up the game. They’re going to have to turn them into rock fights. They’re going to have to get physical and try to make Boston uncomfortable.

The Celtics have to counter with ball movement and not settle for perimeter looks. It’s on Walker to keep attacking in the pick-and-roll and try to spray the ball through the labyrinth of long arms to get teammates quality looks.

If Walker has Boston’s offense clicking, it’s going to put an exceptional amount of pressure on the Sixers to match that offensive output, something that won’t be easy with their lack of shooting and the absence of Simmons.

So much of the Celtics’ offense is predicated on Walker’s play. It eases the burden on Jayson Tatum and creates even more opportunities for Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward. But it starts with Walker.

He doesn’t need to have monster nights like that 60-point outburst in 2018 (heck, the Hornets lost that game) but he needs to play with the same confidence and continually put pressure on the Sixers’ defense.