DALLAS – What appears to be predictable about these Celtics is their unpredictability, such was the case Thursday when they used a suffocating defense to overwhelm the Miami Heat, who entered with the league’s No. 1 offense.
The Celtics improved to a 4-2 on the road, with wins over the Heat and Charlotte Hornets. The common denominator for their past two victories on this road trip has been their maligned defense.
Combined, the Heat and Orlando Magic shot 33 percent from the field and 18-for-84 (21 percent) from the 3-point line. In the Celtics’ previous seven games, opponents shot 37 percent from the 3-point line. The two-game stretch has moved the Celtics to 10th in the NBA in opponent 3-point percentage and sixth in total field goal percentage.
In other words, the Celtics defense has not been awful this season except for a few porous stretches, such as the fourth quarter Monday against the Chicago Bulls. Coach Ime Udoka has been saying he wants his team to win with defense. While the Celtics do have gifted scorers, a few are off to slow starts.
Jayson Tatum, who did not score Thursday until 11:14 left, is shooting 37 percent from the field and 27 percent from the 3-point line. He is shooting less than 30 percent in his past three games. And while he has been better as of late, Dennis Schröder is still shooting sub-40 percent, while Marcus Smart has failed to convert at least half of his field-goal attempts in any game.
The offense has struggled but the remedy has been holding consecutive opponents under 80 points. The Celtics will make things easier on their offense when they play strong defense, and eventually they will win more games when their scorers actually start consistently hitting shots again.
The Celtics will be without leading scorer Jaylen Brown against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday because of hamstring soreness. It’s uncertain whether the injury is significant or if the club wants to give him extra rest since the Celtics don’t play again until Wednesday. But if they continue playing cohesively on defense, they can compensate for Brown’s absence.
So what went right against Miami? Several things. The Celtics, firstly, finally contained leak outs by defenders after 3-point attempts. Miami would send a defender sprinting down the floor after a Celtic would attempt a 3, but the Celtics responded by sending a player to contest the lead pass. It would either prevent an easy bucket or result in a turnover. For the past few years, the Celtics have been burned by leak outs because players shooting 3-pointers look at the trajectory of the ball instead of getting back on defense.
Secondly, the Celtics used double teams effectively without over helping. Helping on defense is essential to success but helping too much can lead to open shots. Boston was especially effective in helping in the post against Jimmy Butler, who loves to post and pivot for bank shots. But the Celtics countered with another defender on his pivot.
There was a level of good fortune. Duncan Robinson missed 12 3-point attempts, but the Celtics also made him work on defense in the post and that possibly led to fatigue. The Celtics also shut down dribble penetration from nemesis Kyle Lowry, who scored 6 points along with 6 turnovers before leaving with an ankle sprain.
The stifling defense also forced Tyler Herro, Miami’s second-leading scorer, to force threes and contested floaters. He scored 6 points in 29 minutes and was a minus-32.
Schröder, considered an above-average defender, said the Celtics have improved because they stopped leaving players on defensive islands.
“We have to put our hat right on the defensive end and start with defense,” Schröder said. “When we do that, we’ll be in great shape, I believe. The first couple of games, we kept everybody by themselves. It was too much individual defense. When you’re out there all five gotta compete. It don’t matter if I got Herro, everybody gotta be prepared to help and help each other.
“That’s what we did great the last couple of games. Everybody going out there, scrambling, getting rebounds, and playing together.”
What also helped is the young players who Udoka called upon to replace Josh Richardson and soak up Tatum’s minutes are strong defenders. Aaron Nesmith made a splash as a rookie because of his defensive hustle while Romeo Langford’s length and athleticism make him a reliable defender.
Udoka obviously trust Nesmith and Langford defending opponents’ first-unit players and he has made it clear he wants his club completely aligned defensively while the offense will eventually improve.
“The energy, the focus, the attention to detail is what we’re talking about,” Udoka said. “The first quarter, the things that hurt us, we cleaned them up the second quarter and most of the second half. Offensively, we want to improve on our numbers. But to hold them to 34 percent, 22 from three, that’s the defensive blueprint we want to have.”