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.