Celtics Have Discovered Best Defensive Lineup in the NBA
BOSTON – The Boston Celtics haven’t had many opportunities to play their regular starting five this season due to various health issues getting in the way. But when all parties are present, there isn’t a more lethal defensive fivesome in the NBA.
The combination of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Rob Williams has the best defensive rating in the league among the 53 five-man lineups which have logged at least 100 minutes.
That particular group has now recorded 174 minutes together and has allowed just 91.3 points per 100 possessions. By comparison, the best defensive team in the league – the Golden State Warriors – has allowed 102.4 points per 100 possessions.
Those five guys have also been active for the past two games, which by no coincidence were the most lopsided victories of the season for Boston.
On Sunday, the Celtics held the Washington Wizards to 87 points in a 29-point win. Then on Tuesday, they limited the Sacramento Kings to 75 points in a franchise home-record 53-point blowout victory.
In both instances, Boston set the tone from the start with a physical defensive effort from their starting group, which then carried over into the second unit.
"There’s familiarity between those guys that have been here for a while,” head coach Ime Udoka reflected following practice Wednesday afternoon. “Obviously, the physicality is up with a strong point guard, big wings, and two bigs out there. We have a size advantage. I like our versatility, physicality, connectivity. It seems like, the last two games, with those guys back, we've been really good to start. But it also adds depth off the bench with Dennis (Schroder), [Josh Richardson], some of the young wings as well. Just feels like we're more whole, coming in waves. Guys can get after it a little bit more."
These last two games are just a small sample size. But even if you double it, the numbers are still mind-boggling.
In the last four games that have featured their regular starting five, the Celtics have allowed an average of just 81.5 points in regulation. Not a single one of those opponents was able to reach 90 by the end of the fourth-quarter buzzer.
Boston’s average margin of victory in those games was 27.3 points. They consisted of three blowout wins of at least 25 points, along with a three-point overtime victory over Indiana on Jan. 10.
Rob Williams has been impressed with that group's connectivity whenever it has played together, noting how everyone plays on a string and if one guy makes a mistake, a teammate will be there to back him up.
“Everybody is holding their own and helping each other at all times. I think that’s the biggest thing we’re doing,” said Williams, who corralled a career-high 17 rebounds in just three quarters of action Tuesday night. “Even when we individually have slip-ups on defense, I feel like the second line is doing a great job of having each other’s back.”
The main challenge with that group is having them all healthy at the same time. They’ve only played 14 games together, nine of which have resulted in wins.
Smart was the latest to wind up on the injury report, spending nearly two weeks in the Health and Safety Protocols in the middle of January. The Celtics went 3-3 during his absence while allowing 105.8 PPG. But when Smart returned Sunday afternoon, filling the last void in Boston’s starting five, the team went right back to its dominant defensive ways.
“Chemistry-wise, we're doing a lot better,” second-string wing Aaron Nesmith observed of Boston’s last two games. “It's good to play with a full, healthy roster, a full, healthy team. And with everybody back now, we can finally do everything that we want to do defensively and offensively.”
Boston will get a chance to really put that group to the test Friday night when it heads to Atlanta to take on the Hawks. Atlanta, led by NBA scoring leader Trae Young, currently boasts the best offensive rating in the Eastern Conference.
Tatum is hoping that his team's defensive momentum will carry over from the past couple of games in order to ground the Hawks.
“It’s just something to build on,” said Tatum, who is just two points behind Young for the league lead in total points. “Hopefully we continue to look forward and not backtrack. We’re feeling good about ourselves, but we’ve got a long way to go, so take it one game at a time.”