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In implementing an entirely new defensive system upon his arrival to the Boston Celtics, first-year head coach Ime Udoka knew that his team would likely need some time to adjust.
Such was confirmed through the first five games of the regular season, as the C’s struggled out of the gates with defensive rating of 110.6, which placed them 23rd in the NBA in that department.
However, over the last four games, Boston has begun to show steady improvement, posting a defensive rating of 98.5, which ranks fourth in the league during that span.
“Some things that we were asking them to do early were probably not natural for all of them, so we knew it was going to take some time,” Udoka said after Saturday morning’s shootaround in Dallas. “But you just gotta keep working.”
And so, they did.
After losing to the Washington Wizards 116-107 in regulation on Oct. 27, the C’s bounced back defensively two nights later by holding Washington to 115 in a double-overtime loss on the road. Then on Monday night, they outscored a one-loss Chicago team 94-75 through the first 33 minutes of action at TD Garden, before easing up and allowing the Bulls to fight back for a 128-114 win.
Despite those two losses, the team felt that it was at least making progress on the defensive end. Al Horford told the team after the Chicago game that the wins would come if they kept bringing pressure on a consistent basis.
“After the game we lost, [Al] sat us down and he told us, we’re gonna eat,” Rob Williams recalled. “He just told us to embrace it, embrace the loss, embrace the mess-ups and just keep pushing.”
Sure enough, Boston’s persistent effort turned into wins during this week’s two-game trip to Florida. First, the C’s made the Orlando Magic disappear with a 92-79 victory. And then they torched the first-place Miami Heat with a 95-78 win.
It marked the first time since April of 2012 that Boston held two consecutive opponents to fewer than 80 points with the latter instance coming against the NBA’s top-ranked offense, nonetheless.
“The thing that's really been impressive is the team defense,” Udoka said looking back on the past week-plus of improvement. “The rotations behind it have really stepped up, us showing the crowd, shifting, keeping guys from the rim, and then everybody covering each other's back. So when you watch the film you've seen over the last five games, we've been number eight in defense. Even in the games we lost, we played really well and just had some breakdowns offensively. So we feel good about it even in the losses, and then it just translated in those last two games. But the effort, understanding, and accountability with each other has been great in those games.”
Team defense is the foundation of Udoka’s system. The switching style that he has implemented requires Boston’s defenders to often change/switch onto different defensive assignments mid-play in order to disrupt the flow of an opposing offense.
Transitioning into such a system also requires collective patience to get on the same page. Though, the team is embracing the adjustment process.
“There really wasn’t a lot of switching my rookie year,” said Williams. “It’s something I talked to all of my coaches and teammates about – it’s something I work on and I like the challenge. I like taking on the challenge of switching onto guards.”
There’s also the challenge of knowing exactly when to switch and when to stay on one’s initial assignment.
“We don't need to switch on certain things, and they're getting a better understanding of that,” Udoka said. “And then, when a guy gets put in a bad spot, we have each other's back. And that’s what we've been doing great. They'll try to take advantage of mismatches and we have the counters behind that. So I think we've kind of been on point with recognition of that, looking like second nature out there.”
The same could not have been said during the first week-plus of the season, but the Celtics have come a long way since then. They look far more comfortable on the defensive end, they’re working better as a team, their understanding of Udoka’s system has improved, and the results are beginning to show. It's an upward trend which the C's hope to continue Saturday night against the Mavericks, as they look to bring their record up to 5-5 in the final matchup of their three-game road trip.