The worst type of basketball team to be, other than an abjectly horrible, last-in-the-league-type club, is probably an aimless one. And for the first couple months of this season — indeed, for the last few years — that is exactly what the Boston Celtics were. Built around the one-two punch of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a pair of fine shot creators who nevertheless fell short of the highest class of wing supernovas, they curdled into stasis, an image of either unrealized or underwhelmingly realized potential. In last year’s playoffs, the Brooklyn Nets booted them out of the first round in a “gentleman’s sweep.” Over the first stretch of the 2021-22 season, under new head coach Ime Udoka, the Celtics mostly bricked pull-up jumpers and griped about each others’ selfish play. At the turn of the calendar, they sat at 17-19.
The best type of basketball team to be, other than a true championship threat, is one that knows what it is. Since Jan. 23, the night Marcus Smart returned from a stint in the health and safety protocols, the Celtics have won 13 of 16 games, including a down-to-the-wire victory over the Denver Nuggets and a 48-point demolition of the Philadelphia Sixers in a span of five days. It would be too tidy to suggest the recent run signals an ascension to title contention; the offense still gets gummy at times and sits around league-average efficiency. But this stretch does show a team whose long-sought identity has solidified around a guiding concept: Having a hard time scoring matters less when the other team has an impossible one.
The Celtics have clamped down across multiple categories and to a peerless degree. On Feb. 13, Brown and Smart harassed Trae Young into a 9-for-26 afternoon; two nights later, Al Horford held Joel Embiid to 3-of-9 shooting — the best shooting performance by percentage among Philadelphia’s starters — before taking an early seat with the game out of hand. Overall, the Celtics allow 105.3 points per 100 possessions, the second-lowest mark in the league; cut the sample down to those last 16 games, and the number shrinks to 99.4, the best in the league over that span by 7.3 points. “It’s suffocating at times, with our size and versatility” Udoka said after Boston held Sacramento to a high-school score on Jan. 25. “We’ve got big wings, versatile bigs, and a pit bull for a point guard. So there’s no real weakness out there.”
If that last phrase reads underwhelming, more suited to solidity than dominance, that’s the point. Other top-end defensive clubs can draw most of their power from one or two star stoppers capable of cleaning up messes; think Rudy Gobert in Utah or the almost 14 feet of shot-blockers in Cleveland. But Boston doesn’t spill anything in the first place. Four members of the Celtics’ starting five — Smart, Tatum, Horford, and the forever-armed and always airborne Robert Williams — land in the top 40 in FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR metric; Brown stands at No. 62. Backup guard Derrick White, the team’s biggest trade deadline acquisition, slots in at eighth. They challenge jumpers (allowing a league-low 38.8 percent shooting on midrange jumpers, per Cleaning the Glass, and 34.3 percent from three, which ranks sixth-lowest) and block six shots per game, second in the NBA. God help the crunch-time switch-hunter choosing one of these human fire blankets to deem a “mismatch.”
Still, just as the cleverest offensive sets don’t mean much without a star player to initiate them, even the most tied-together defense doesn’t send NBA teams back to 90s-era clankery without a couple of really forbidding dudes at the center of it. It starts with Smart, whom the stats both distinguish (1.8 steals and three deflections per game, both top-10 numbers) and undersell. Smart has always produced about as many defensive highlights as a guard can — blindside rips of ballhandlers, fully horizontal dives into passing lanes — but his real effect lies in his play-in, play-out doggedness. Defensive metrics have come a long way, but watching Celtics games tells you just how many ball handlers Smart hounds into hesitance, how many first-in-a-series picks he blows up before a play can get going. “I’m going to hit you one good time,” Smart said in an offseason workout video. “Referee is going to call it or he’s not, but I bet you won’t set no screens.”
A representative sequence came in an early February win over Charlotte. Late in the first half, Hornets forward Kelly Oubre snuck into the open court off a Boston turnover for what looked like a sure layup — but in a second’s time, Smart had chased him down, leaped around and to the front of him and tipped the shot out of bounds, slamming into the stanchion as his home crowd gave an ovation. A couple of plays later, Smart traced a LaMelo Ball drive to the lane and slipped in to draw a charge. He can embarrass or annoy you, whatever it takes to ruin your day.
The other bookend to the Boston defense, fourth-year center Williams, likewise has statistical bona fides (Williams holds opponents to 53.5 percent shooting within 6 feet of the basket, just a hair higher than Gobert’s 52.4) that don’t quite do justice to his across-the-board influence. His 6-foot-9 frame is on the small side for a back-line anchor, but it lets him keep up with perimeter players. When he does rotate down and man the bucket, a 40-inch vertical and 7-foot-6 wingspan more than make up for what little his height costs him. At his best, he renders an entire side of the floor off-limits:
Running Cameron Payne off the 3-point line, staying step-for-step with his drive and then smacking an extra-high-for-safety floater off course at its apex?1 Who else makes this play? If your answer is longer than “Giannis Antetokounmpo,” yours is a better imagination than mine.
In recent years, Celtics fans looked at potential playoff matchups like so many flavors of disillusionment — would they rather have Durant or Giannis send them packing? — but there’s now some fun in envisioning their club lining up against the new-look Bulls or freshly Big Two’ed Sixers. Maybe Smart is the player to hold DeMar DeRozan under 50 percent shooting; maybe Williams swooping in from the sideline is the antidote to the so-far-unstoppable Harden-Embiid pick and roll.
Things figure to remain something of a struggle on the other end, especially when Boston faces playoff-caliber defenses. Tatum has managed an effective field-goal percentage of just 49.9 this season — right in line with the league-low number the Celtics yield to their opponents. Smart (a 32 percent 3-point shooter) and White (30.6) do not make for the ideal floor-spacing late lineup; teams will cinch in on Tatum and Brown when the possessions matter most. A 21-point loss to the Pacers on the second leg of a back-to-back Sunday night, during which Boston shot 43 percent overall and 28 percent from 3-point range, was a reminder of how rough things can look when the Celtics are at their worst.
Still, the Celtics’ recourse during this season’s stretch run is far better than the one from years past, which consisted mainly of waiting for Tatum’s famous jam over LeBron James to result in a belated transfer of all-around powers. Now they’re a team stamped with a new motto: If it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be hard for everybody.