Celtics

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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WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

Only in the NBA bubble could two budding stars battle on the court one moment then ham it up in the media room the next.

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was speaking to reporters via video conference Tuesday night after Boston's 112-106 loss to Miami when Heat big man Bam Adebayo strode into the room for his own interview session.

Adebayo wasn't in a waiting mood, though, so he tried to distract Tatum with a few incredulous looks from the corner.

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Here's the entertaining scene, as captured by ESPN's Rachel Nichols in Orlando:

Props to Tatum for maintaining his focus as Adebayo tried to run interference. The two young stars then shared a playful exchange in which Tatum appeared to chide Adebayo for benefiting from some whistles. (The Heat big man scored 11 of his 21 points on free throws thanks to 18 free throw attempts, a game high.)

"You shot free throws like you won MVP or something," Tatum appeared to tell Adebayo.

Their banter was all in good nature: Tatum and Adebayo were teammates in the 2016 McDonald's All-American Game and entered the 2017 NBA Draft together, so they go way back. But Tatum still may have had a bitter taste in his mouth after picking up five fouls and getting hit with a technical in Tuesday's loss.

Both players are also in the running for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award amid career seasons; Adebayo is averaging a double-double (16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds) with 1.3 blocks per game for Miami, while Tatum is racking up 23.4 points and seven rebounds per game as he blossoms into an NBA star.

Celtics Talk Podcast: How much does a healthy Kemba Walker raise the Celtics’ ceiling? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

We could sit here and scream about how poor Boston’s defense has been inside the bubble. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 117.9 after their first three seeding games, and only one team has a worse mark (the helter-skelter Sixers).

We could lament Boston’s lethargy after the team whiffed Tuesday with a chance to essentially lock up the No. 3 seed while playing a Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat team that was on the second night of a back-to-back.

Boston hasn’t played with any sort of consistent energy in its three games, falling behind early against Milwaukee, coughing up a big lead against Portland, and trying to play catchup all night against Miami.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nets, which begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

But here’s one thought we couldn’t shake while watching Tuesday’s game: What a luxury it is for Miami to have a rookie like Tyler Herro on their bench. Herro chipped in 11 points over 22 minutes during the Heat’s 112-106 triumph.

With Marcus Smart in foul trouble — so much so that he fouled out late in the third quarter — Boston lacked a bench boost. Take away Enes Kanter’s 10 points and the Celtics’ reserve trio of Grant Williams, Brad Wanamaker, and Smart combined for 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting.

At one point during the second half, Celtics coach Brad Stevens dispatched Romeo Langford for his first seeding-game minutes but Langford turned in a scoreless 3 minutes, 44 seconds, in which he mostly blended into the scenery.

Herro, of course, went one spot ahead of Langford in the 2019 draft. There had been a buzz before draft night that the Celtics were fond of Herro and that he had impressed the team with his shooting in one of his workouts. There might have even been a few groans inside the Auerbach Center when Miami snagged the Kentucky product at No. 13.

The Celtics ultimately took Langford, who has no shortage of potential and might eventually be a better pro. But his rookie season got off to a slow start as he healed from hand surgery and then he dealt with a bunch of minor maladies that even limited how much floor time he got with the Maine Red Claws of the G-League.

Herro has now appeared in 50 games for Miami while shooting a robust 39 percent beyond the 3-point arc on 5.4 attempts per game. He wasn’t even Miami’s best rookie this season — that distinction goes to Kendrick Nunn — but Herro won Erik Spoelstra’s confidence and is now a key rotation piece while logging 26.9 minutes per game.

On Tuesday, Miami’s four-man bench combined for 43 points on 31 shots while each player logged at least 21 minutes of floor time. For Boston, Semi Ojeleye missed five of his six shots, including multiple open 3s. Smart finished 0-for-5 shooting.

Make no mistake, Boston will lean heavy on its core players when the playoffs arrive. When Kemba Walker is off his minute restriction, and combined with a hefty dose of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward, that might leave only a small handful of minutes for reserves not named Smart.

Still, games like Tuesday night show how important it is to have players that can take the baton, even if it’s only on rare nights. None of Boston’s younger players have shown enough this year to earn Stevens’ unwavering trust.

Again, guys like Grant Williams and Langford could have bright futures. Maybe Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, too. That’s especially important for Boston because of how much money they have tied up long term in their core players.

But the fact of that matter is that, right now, none of Boston’s rookies have seized their opportunity, nor has 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams, who was only inserted late in Tuesday’s game to defend an inbounds attempt with his length and bounce.

Those players could get another chance to show what they’ve got on Wednesday when Boston plays a back-to-back against the Nets. With Walker set to rest his knee and Stevens unlikely to go too heavy on starter minutes in the team’s first (and only) bubble double, younger players will need to take advantage of whatever minutes come their way.

Herro won’t be the difference between a first-round upset and a first-round exit for Miami. But the Heat are well-positioned moving into the future because of the progress their youngest players made this season. It’s critical teams develop talent if they are going to commit most of their money to their top stars.

The Celtics are left waiting for their youngest players to show they are ready.

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