The Celtics rolled to the brink of an NBA title last season in large part because they unfurled a suffocating, relentless defense that left opponents puzzled. As this season approached, they vowed that the unit would be similarly destructive.
But through the first two weeks there were signs of wear and tear. The Celtics entered Sunday night’s game against the Wizards with the 26th-ranked defense in the NBA. It is early, but it is still a long way from the top-ranked unit that battered opponents a year ago.
Despite the numbers, coach Joe Mazzulla said he has not been especially concerned. Opponents were taking an unusually large number of midrange jumpers, and that is exactly what Boston wants. The only problem was that they were going in.
Mazzulla acknowledged that the defensive rebounding has not been perfect, but he hopes that is a temporary hiccup. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the group should receive a jolt when All-Defensive Team center Robert Williams returns from knee surgery in a few weeks.
Nevertheless, it’s good to smother an opponent for a night and rekindle that they-can’t-score feeling. And on Sunday, the Wizards came to TD Garden and mostly looked lost. Washington made just 38.8 percent of its shots and 21.9 percent of its 3-pointers, as the Celtics rolled to a 112-94 win in which they never trailed.
“I saw the same effort that we’ve had the first however-many games we’ve played,” Mazzulla said. “And I saw a commitment to the details and a commitment to the execution on every possession. Our guys are always going to play hard. We just have to continue to execute and be detailed and more [consistent], and we were tonight.”
It was the first time this season that the Celtics held an opponent below 100 points. Now they will have to show that it was more than a one-night event.
Guard Marcus Smart said Boston has had some decent starts this season but has struggled to sustain that effort throughout a game.
“We wanted to come out here tonight and make a big emphasis on that end once we get that lead because of our defense,” Smart said. “And we were playing great defense. [We can’t] let it slow down and take our foot off the gas.”
For the most part, the night was reminiscent of the second half of last season, when Boston relied on its defense, poured in timely jump shots, and needed little time to turn close games into romps.
In addition to stifling the Wizards, the Celtics made 21 3-pointers and led by as many as 25 points, as they wiped away their two-game losing streak before it could become a legitimate concern. Jaylen Brown had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Jayson Tatum and Malcolm Brogdon added 23 points apiece.
Tatum and Brown did most of their damage at the start, when they combined to make 8 of 10 shots and score their team’s first 23 points. Brogdon stepped in when Boston’s two stars had a subdued second half, and ensured that it did not affect the cushy lead. Brogdon had 16 points after halftime, and no other Celtic scored more than 6.
The former rookie of the year is still adjusting to coming off the bench for the first time since 2017-18. Brogdon said there are challenges when coming in cold, but he uses the time on the bench to survey the flow of a game and see where his team needs him most.
“I’m trying to figure out what the flow is and what we’re missing and what can I provide,” Brogdon said. “Tonight, we were in a little bit of a lull in the second half. We were playing great ball and guys were moving it, getting great shots, but we just weren’t hitting shots. So I wanted to put an emphasis on getting downhill and getting us easy shots.”
Wizards star Bradley Beal missed his first 12 shots before finishing the game by making four in a row, but by that time his team had mostly been flattened.
Tatum and Brown, who entered the night ranked in the top six in minutes per game, were able to sit for most of the fourth quarter thanks to the cushy lead. After the Wizards pulled within 20 with about seven minutes left — still not really within striking distance — Mazzulla somewhat surprisingly went back to his two stars.
But the Celtics went on another small run and Tatum and Brown were back on the bench a minute later, able to comfortably watch their teammates finish off their first blowout win of this season.