After losing to Miami Tuesday night, Jayson Tatum came across a statistic that caused his brow to furrow with concern: through their first three games inside the NBA bubble, his Celtics were ranked second-to-last among the 22 participating teams in defensive rating.
That had to change, he thought. That had to change quickly.
“That's just kind of unacceptable for us,” Tatum reflected Friday night. “With the elite defenders that we have on this team, and then just collectively, our identity, who we want to be – we’ve got to take more pride in that.”
From that moment forward, the Celtics have been an entirely different team on the defensive end of the floor.
On Wednesday night, Boston handed the Brooklyn Nets a 149-115 beatdown. Then on Friday night, it upended the defending champion Toronto Raptors, 122-100, while turning in its most impressive three-quarter stretch of defense of the entire season.
The Raptors entered Friday’s matchup as the hottest team in the NBA, having won 24 of its last 28 games, including all three of their matchups inside the bubble. But nothing could prepare them for the amount of pressure that Boston’s defense was about to apply.
The C’s opened up the first six minutes on a 12-2 run, from which they never looked back. Their relentless physicality was what stood out to Daniel Theis from the opening tip, and it’s what set the tone for the entire night.
“From the first second (of action), we played defense,” said the third-year center, who tallied a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds. “We didn’t give them any easy layups, any open looks, and that’s how we’ve got to play every game.”
Boston allowed just 14 points during the opening frame, which tied its best defensive quarter of the season. At halftime, the C’s led 52-37, tying their best defensive half of the season. During the third quarter, they went up by as many as 40 points and led 91-57 heading into the final frame.
Just a reminder: this was the defending champs they were facing.
“I think the biggest thing was that we were ready to play,” said head coach Brad Stevens. “I thought Wednesday we really guarded, for the most part, the way we wanted to start guarding, and I thought that continued today. We have to be locked in, we have to be dialed in, we have to be good defensively to have a chance to be a good team.”
Being a good defensive team all starts with effort. And one of the greatest measurements of defensive effort is how a team performs in transition.
Against a run-and-gun team like Toronto, transition defense is particularly critical. The Raptors entered Friday night’s contest averaging a league-high 19.2 fast-break points per game, but Boston managed to hold them well below that mark as it outscored Toronto 19-13 in transition.
“That’s one of their identities: how fast they move the ball up the court,” Tatum noted, before singling out the impact of their speedy backcourt combo of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. “The way they push the ball, that’s definitely an emphasis. When you’re playing against them, it’s something that you’ve got to worry about because they’re one of the best at getting the ball up the court.”
During their first few games inside the bubble, transition defense had been an area upon which the Celtics needed to improve. Fortunately for them, they seemed to have flipped a switch on that end, and it showed Friday night against one of the quickest offenses in the league.
“Today was a good step in the right direction,” said Tatum. “We’ve just got to continue to get back to who we are and guard how we normally do.”
If they can do that, the Celtics should be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time next week.
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