Jayson Tatum Unveils Secret Behind Celtics’ Crazy Defensive Turnaround

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum with head coach Ime Udoka

Getty Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum with head coach Ime Udoka.

Through December 2021, the Boston Celtics were one of the most disappointing teams in the NBA. By the end of the day on December 31, the Celtics were 17-19 and sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Things would continue to go downhill, as just a couple of weeks later on January 14, Boston was 22-23 and sitting in 11th.

With Brad Stevens moving to the front office and an entire season of .500 basketball behind them, adjusting to a new coach was never going to be easy for the Celtics. Ime Udoka brought with him new schemes, a new game plan, and new expectations for everyone on the team.

And through December 31, Boston’s team stats reflected just how hard the transition was. They ranked ninth in defensive rating (107.5) and 20th in offensive rating (108.3). But since then, the Celtics hold the best defensive rating in the NBA (104.9), as well as the third-best offensive rating (117.4). 

Their defense has been the main factor behind their recent success, and superstar forward Jayson Tatum gave some insight into what changed. On an April 1 episode of The Draymond Green Show, Tatum spoke to Warriors star Draymond Green about buying into Ime Udoka’s new defensive system.

Celtics Adjusting to New Style of Defense

Green talked about how, under Udoka’s system, the Celtics funnel everything to big man Robert Williams at the rim. They are able to switch everything and pressure the ball because they know Williams is behind them to clean up all of their mistakes. He asked Tatum about what it took for them to adapt to that new philosophy on the defensive end. 

Tatum admitted that he was a bit hesitant at first. However, once he and the team fully bought in, everything began to fall into place:

Jayson Tatum reveals secret behind Celtics turnaround | The Draymond Green ShowJayson Tatum explains to Draymond Green what the difference has been for the Celtics since their season turned around and what makes Robert Williams so underrated on the offensive end of the floor. Draymond also mentions how Williams deserves more love as a passer and how he occasionally reminds him of the best passer in…2022-04-01T18:00:02Z

We weren’t used to that at first. I’ll be the first one to say, I was a little hesitant, because I had only known one way for four years. And, you know, not last year, but my first three years, we were always a top five defense. We wasn’t this good, but I just was so accustomed to doing things a certain way. And I think part of growing is being open to change. And that’s something I’ve definitely learned this season. And, you know, it was not perfect first, but I think once we really bought in and once we got healthy, obviously it’s been working.

With Williams out, the Celtics will be forced to adapt once again. And while Tatum gave credit to Udoka, he also discussed how defense often relies more on effort rather than skill.

Celtics Have Roster Full of Defensive Specialists

Boston’s roster is littered with great defenders. Marcus Smart is a two-time All-Defensive guard and a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year this season, Al Horford made an All-Defensive team in the 2017-18 season, and guys like Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, and Grant Williams are all above-average defenders who can guard multiple positions.

Tatum pointed at this wall of defenders as a primary reason for Boston’s success. He talked about how important it is to have guys that always give it their all on that side of the floor:

I think a part of is definitely is coaching. But I think you know, when you look at the teams, that got the best defenses; they got guys on a team that give a f*** on defense. And like, you know, the teams that got the best defense, that’s something that we hold everybody accountable from the first man to last man. I was like, alright, we might not be like the best offensive team but like, we’re gonna hang our hat on the defensive end and everybody’s gotta pull their weight.

The 24-year-old even slipped in a joke about Horford, who will be turning 36 on June 3. Tatum said that if Horford can play in Udoka’s switch-everything system, then the younger guys on the team have no excuses:

If Al, in year 15, is gonna be switching onto guards and pressuring and things like that, then there’s no excuse for somebody in their second or third year. And you know, that’s something that we just relay to everybody.

With just a couple of games left in the regular season, Boston has the best defensive rating in the NBA (106.1), and that’s including their early-season struggles. Now that the team has fully bought in and is clicking on all cylinders, their defensive potential is through the roof.

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