SAN FRANCISCO — Ignored amid the Celtics’ fourth-quarter offensive brilliance in Game 1 was their second-half defensive impact against the Golden State Warriors.
The Celtics contained Stephen Curry, who scored 21 points in the opening quarter but just 13 in the final three. With Curry being hot and one of the best shooters in league history, he spent the second half trying to carry the Golden State offense. He attempted one third of the Warriors’ shots after halftime, but he made just 5 of 14.
That limited the opportunities for Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, who combined for 12 attempts. Draymond Green, never considered a strong perimeter shooter, was left wide open and missed 4 of his 5 shots.
And the Celtics pressured first-time NBA Finals participant Jordan Poole, a high-scoring reserve guard, into several mistakes and forced shots.
The Boston defense is elite because it contains several key elements that are essential to a successful unit.
The Celtics switch everything, meaning they don’t play man-to-man defense, where one player is assigned to another. When the Warriors set picks to create a certain matchup, the Celtics player screened sticks to the Warrior who set the screen. The other Celtics defender now switches to the ballhandler.
The reason Curry got off to such a stellar start was not only his greatness and ability to make difficult shots, it was the Celtics failure to communicate on several switches, leaving Curry open. Against Curry, capable of making 35 footers with ease, the Celtics defense has to start higher on the perimeter than they did in the previous series against the Miami Heat.
Because he has so much room to maneuver and is brilliant moving around screens, Curry’s nearly impossible to defend. But the Celtics pressured Curry more in the second half and took advantage of their versatility.
Team president Brad Stevens has given coach Ime Udoka a roster full of multi-positional players, which fosters the Celtics’ defense-first mentality. Every rotational player can guard different positions, making their switching philosophy more effective and impactful.
When asked the difference between this Celtics defense and the previous ones he’s played on, defensive player of the year Marcus Smart called out the versatility and number of two-way players. In previous years, the Celtics had to compensate for the defensive shortcomings of players such as Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba Walker.
“You know, no offense to those other teams, but there was always somebody on the court for us that we had to cover for,” Smart said Saturday at Chase Center. “You know, teams did a good job of exploiting that, especially in the playoffs, it’s all about adjustments and matchups.
“So somebody would always pick on the guy that we had that we would always have to help, and it would put a strain on our defense. This year it’s kind of tough to do that because in every position everybody can hold their own in each and switch and guard multiple positions, and that’s what makes us stronger.”
In the case of Curry’s second-half struggles, center Robert Williams played a major role. He was switched onto Curry on several occasions and provided adequate resistance. That’s not to say Curry didn’t splash a couple of jumpers in Williams’s face, but there were also a couple of missed attempts and a blocked shot included.
Former All-defensive player Al Horford said the best Celtics defense he previously played on was the 2017-18 team with young Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown along with rugged center Aron Baynes. He said this one is better because of experience and the presence of Williams.
“Yeah, well, just speaking about this team solely, the ability of our guys being able to guard one through five, it’s huge,” Horford said. “When you’re able to do that and just switch all of us and being able to hold your own, I think it makes us very unique.
“Then when you have a guy like Rob Williams, that man is just so impressive, just his presence, his ability to change shots, to make people think going into the paint, just the way that he can move, the way that he recovers, I just feel like it has put us at a different level. It just has. This one is very unique.”
Switching is one way that opposing teams have tried to contain the Warriors over the years. Curry said the club will be better prepared for the Celtics’ approach in Game 2.
“You have to take care of the basketball, because the way we move bodies and move the ball, switching is designed to keep everything on the perimeter,” Curry said. “Keep bodies in between man and the basket. Try to force you into tough shots. But it also allows some confusion at times, if you run your sets hard. One, if you get stops and you can run in transition, because it’s hard to match up and know where you’re switching and all that type of stuff.
“And they have the personnel to be able to do it, so it’s their bread and butter. That’s what worked for them to be the No. 1 defense in the league.”
Stevens emphasized defense during his eight-year tenure. The 2017-18 team finished second in defensive rating, sixth the next season and fourth in 2019-20. That number slipped to 13th last season, but roster changes such as moving Walker for Horford, trading Enes Freedom, Evan Fournier leaving via free agency allowed for better defenders such as Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams to emerge. Robert Williams stayed healthier and played more than 10 minutes more per game this season.
And quite honestly, the returning core just improved under Udoka’s system.
“I think what’s different now is Smart is the Defensive Player of the Year,” Tatum said. “Not to say he wasn’t a great defensive player, but he’s gotten better, as well as I have. We have Rob, and J.B. is a much better defender. A lot of those core guys just got older and more experienced. I think it makes us a better defensive team now that the individual defenders are better, obviously, with the different concepts that we instill in our defense now.”