Will Celtics bring NBA championship-caliber defense to Orlando bubble?

Will Celtics bring NBA championship-caliber defense to Orlando bubble?

The two-part question posed to Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was pretty straightforward: Had any of his players tested positive for the coronavirus during the NBA’s testing last month and would all 17 of the team’s roster players be headed to Orlando.

Stevens, just wading into his first media conference in a month, answered the first part of the query but his answer soon drifted and, unprompted, Stevens started preaching the importance of defense when the season resumes later this month.

“We talked about it all year, if we’re not able to pressure the ball, if we’re not disruptive at that end of the floor, then we won’t have a long stay,” said Stevens.

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On the surface, it was an unremarkable non-sequitur. But it might have offered a telling glimpse into Stevens’ basketball focus as the Celtics begin ramping up for a return to game action. And Stevens knows his team must play to its defensive potential to have any chance of competing for a title at this unprecedented restart.

"I think there is going to be a huge emphasis on defense,” said Gordon Hayward. "Without a doubt, the offense might be a little bit further behind since we haven't played together and been with each other. That takes time and a season to get your groove going so, by the end of the year, you know the plays that work really well and where you are going to get your shots. You have this great rhythm you get into and zone you get into.

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

The Celtics owned the fourth best defensive rating in the league when the season paused, allowing 106.2 points per 100 possessions before the season paused. They were an elite team when they played to their defensive potential, posting a 17-3 record whenever Boston's defensive rating was 102 or lower in a game.

The Celtics so rarely had all of their top players available that it’s hard to know exactly how good this defense can be at full health — and, truth be told, they were never particularly crisp in the handful of instances Boston did have its top 7 together — but it’s undeniable that the Celtics have the potential to really make opponents work.

The bad news: So do all of the teams that Boston is most likely to encounter in the postseason. If the playoffs started with the current seedings, the Celtics’ potential playoff path would include the 76ers (6th best defensive rating, 107.6), Raptors (2nd, 104.9), Bucks (1st, 101.6) and Lakers (3rd, 105.5).

What’s more, Boston is set to compete against some of the league’s top offenses. In fact, Boston’s first three seeding games feature three top 10 offenses in Milwaukee (6th, 112.3 offensive rating), Portland (10th, 112), and Miami (7th, 112.2).

If offenses struggle out of the gates inside the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, then defense could become even more important to team success. Stevens suggested that conditioning will be key and wants his team ready to sustain a defensive intensity when games begin.

Stevens’ best teams have always operated with a Defensive DNA, a backbone the team can lean on regardless of whether shots are falling. His players seem acutely aware of the priority.

“[Defense] will be very important,” said backup point guard Brad Wanamaker. "Just being off of basketball for so long, you can’t count on shots to fall in right away. It’s getting used to game play and getting your game legs under you. Defense is going to be key.”

When the season paused, the Celtics had three players ranked in the top 32 of ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus rankings. No. 2 on that list might surprise you as Boston big man Daniel Theis sits right behind Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert. He could be be tasked with some of the toughest matchups in Orlando, particularly if the Celtics and Sixers cross paths in the postseason.

Marcus Smart (28) and Jayson Tatum (32) also spotted high on those rankings. Mix in Jaylen Brown’s defensive potential, Hayward’s versatility, and Kemba Walker’s effort level (and charge-taking abilities) and Boston has no shortage of defensive potential.

Smart ranked in the top 10 in deflections (3.2 per game) this season. Walker ranked seventh in charge takes. Theis is easily the team leader in contested shots at 10.7 per game (nearly 3 more per game than the next closest teammate in Jaylen Brown).

The Celtics had one of the NBA’s best defenses back in 2018 when they came within minutes of the NBA Finals despite playing without injured Hayward and Kyrie Irving. The key this year is playing to the team’s defensive potential despite some very unique circumstances.

When a reporter followed up on the initial query about Boston bringing all 17 of its original roster players to Florida, Stevens confirmed the team was expecting full attendance. But, with his roster seemingly set, Stevens’ focus had clearly shifted to what Boston needs to do to thrive in this unique restart.

And defense appears to be priority No. 1 if the Celtics plan to make this an extended stay.

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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.

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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.