Celtics Defense Fueled Turnaround but This Brutal Reality Awaits

Jayson Tatum, playing good Celtics defense.

Getty Jayson Tatum, playing good Celtics defense.

No doubt, after a brutal 2-5 stretch to open the NBA season, the Celtics have gotten a lot better in November. Since the first of the month, the team has figured out how to play the style of switch-heavy defense that new coach Ime Udoka wants, and in the process, the Celtics have gone 8-4, bringing them into Thanksgiving weekend with a winning record.

The numbers are pretty stark. From the beginning of the season through November 1, the Celtics allowed an average of 110.3 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA in defensive ranking, per NBA.com/stats. The offense struggled, too, at 104.6 points per 100 possessions (19th), giving Boston a net rating of minus-5.7. That was 24th.

Since then, the offense has had a slight uptick (107.7 rating, 17th in the league in that span), while the defense has surged. Boston’s defensive rating over the last 12 games is 102.2, third in the NBA. The net rating has flipped to plus-5.5, which is fourth in the league after November 1.

The problem, though, is that things are about to get a lot more difficult for the Celtics, with a brutal schedule awaiting them after their road trip to San Antonio on Friday.

Celtics Faced Light Stretch, But That is Changing

Over that improved 8-4 stretch, the Celtics’ defense faced only three teams with Top-10 offenses, and six teams with Bottom-10 offenses. They also played only half their games against teams that were .500 or better.

That will change. Starting with Sunday’s game in Toronto, the Celtics play four straight games against teams with Top-10 offenses: the Raptors, Sixers, Jazz and Blazers. Seven of their next 11 games will be against teams with Top-10 offenses, including two matchups against the Sixers, who are expected to get Joel Embiid back after a bout with COVID-19,

In fact, starting with the game in Philadelphia on December 1, the Celtics will, incredibly, play 14 of 15 opponents who are currently .500 or better. That includes a rough road trip through the West against the Jazz, Blazers, Lakers, Clipper and Suns, teams with a combined 57-36 record.

Boston Defense Will be Critical to Maintaining Success

The big question, of course, is whether the Celtics’ defense can hold up against this level of opponent. We’ve seen Boston’s D take care of the likes of Houston, Oklahoma City and even the lowly Lakers’ offense, but in their last time out, the Cs were torched by the Nets for 123 points on 50.6% shooting and 40.0% 3-point shooting.

The hope, though, is that the Celtics—despite the Brooklyn result—have finally gotten Udoka’s D ingrained into their approach.

That was something veteran big man Al Horford said he’d noticed weeks ago.

“I think the biggest thing for us is that there’s been some clarity on the defensive end and then understanding of what we’re trying to do,” Horford said, via The Athletic. “Starting a new season and getting everything going again, I feel like sometimes things that you would expect guys to know and pick up kind of gets lost in translation. Some of these things you kind of do sometimes, not all the time, and we kind of just came to a point – and we figured it out pretty early – that we needed to be more consistent defensively and really pay attention to the details and the things that we need to do to make the defense work. And I think that once Coach Udoka addressed that and we all kind of focused in on the things that we needed to do, that’s been the biggest difference.”

Celtics Upcoming Schedule

(Via Basketball-Reference.com)

Fri, Nov 26, 2021 @ San Antonio Spurs
Sun, Nov 28, 2021 @ Toronto Raptors
Wed, Dec 1, 2021 Philadelphia 76ers
Fri, Dec 3, 2021 @ Utah Jazz
Sat, Dec 4, 2021 @ Portland Trail Blazers
Tue, Dec 7, 2021 @ Los Angeles Lakers
Wed, Dec 8, 2021 @ Los Angeles Clippers
Fri, Dec 10, 2021 @ Phoenix Suns
Mon, Dec 13, 2021 Milwaukee Bucks
Fri, Dec 17, 2021 Golden State Warriors
Sat, Dec 18, 2021 New York Knicks
Mon, Dec 20, 2021 Philadelphia 76ers
Wed, Dec 22, 2021 Cleveland Cavaliers
Sat, Dec 25, 2021 @ Milwaukee Bucks
Mon, Dec 27, 2021 @ Minnesota Timberwolves
Wed, Dec 29, 2021 Los Angeles Clippers
Fri, Dec 31, 2021 Phoenix Suns


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