ORLANDO — When Ime Udoka was hired as the Celtics’ coach last summer, he scanned the roster and had a vision of how this team could become dominant defensively.
When game-planning, it was usually easy enough for him to identify the opponent’s weak defensive links. But when he looked at his own core group, he didn’t see them.
But injuries and COVID-19 absences made it difficult to see whether Udoka was viewing this group through the proper prism, and it made it a challenge for them to develop chemistry.
In recent weeks, however, the Celtics have been whole, and their defense has created nightmares for opponents. The latest was Sunday night, when the Magic were held to 35.8 percent shooting overall and 19.2 percent from the 3-point line in a 116-83 romp.
It was the eighth time this season Boston held an opponent under 90 points, the most in the league.
“[Our defense] is suffocating at times, with our size and versatility,” Udoka said. “So, we’ve got big wings, versatile bigs, and obviously a pit-bull for a point guard [in Marcus Smart], so there’s no real weakness out there, nobody to pick on, which is the case with other teams at times.”
The Celtics have won a season-high five games in a row and seven of their last eight to vault back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They are in a virtual tie for sixth place with the Raptors and Nets, and they will have a chance to move past Brooklyn when the teams meet Tuesday. The Nets will be without starters Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, and perhaps James Harden.
The thoroughness of a win doesn’t make it look any better in the standings, but Boston is in the midst of one of its most dominant stretches in years. Sunday’s win was the team’s fifth wire-to-wire victory in eight games. In a sixth, it fell behind the Pelicans, 2-0, and never trailed again.
“We’re living up to our identity,” Udoka said. “We talk about it coming out, to jump out with the right intention early and not give teams hope.”
The Celtics held the Pistons to 16 points in the first quarter of Friday’s win, and they limited the Magic to 15 Sunday. The Magic looked uneasy in some stretches and downright frazzled in others.
“Before the season I think that the way our team was structured, we had a defensive group,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “We had a lot of guys who have made names for themselves on the defensive side of the basketball. I think this is what we imagined when we all started.”
Brown scored a game-high 26 points, with 2 coming on a ferocious, one-handed slam over Orlando’s Mo Bamba that served as a microcosm for how these past few weeks have gone for Boston. Dennis Schröder came off the bench and added 22.
The backup point guard’s name continues to pop up in rumors ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline. His offensive pop and his expiring $5.9 million contract will likely be attractive to a team seeking a championship push, and the Celtics would slip under the luxury tax threshold by trading him.
But this hot streak could also give president of basketball operations Brad Stevens some pause as he considers roster alterations. After Sunday’s win, Schröder addressed his situation.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s a business, but I like the guys, the organization; I love them. So, end of the day, when I go somewhere else, that’s how the business goes. But I love the guys here and if I’m staying here, of course that would be better.”
The Celtics set the tone with their defense at the start Sunday, holding the Magic scoreless for nearly four minutes. Orlando finished the opening quarter 5 for 21 overall and 0 for 4 from the 3-point line.
“This is kind of what we envisioned and it’s coming to fruition now that we have some consistency with our lineups,” Udoka said.
This helped Boston overcome its own messy beginning. It took a 21-15 first-quarter lead despite making 1 of 13 3-pointers. Then the Celtics pushed ahead at halftime, 49-39, despite Jayson Tatum going 1 for 7 and scoring 3 points.
The Celtics had no issue generating offense in the second half, when they erupted for 67 and kept the Magic at a distance.
In the win over the Pistons, the backups let a 24-point fourth quarter lead get sliced to 7, creating some anxious moments.
This time, Udoka waited a little longer to turn to his reserves, but they didn’t crumble. Payton Pritchard even ended this latest feel-good night by throwing down a left-handed dunk, the first of his career.