We spent a large portion of the 2022-23 season wondering if the Boston Celtics could restore a defense-first identity that aided the team on its Finals run a year ago.
An afterthought amid a historic offensive start to the season, Boston’s defense quietly rounded into shape over the final four months of the season. From the time Robert Williams III returned on December 16 until the finish line of the regular season, Boston’s defense was the best in the NBA by a full point.
Still, it felt like there was another level for Boston’s defense. Marcus Smart hadn’t played to his All-Defense standards, Williams III missed a bunch of time, and the Celtics only occasionally showed us glimpses of the team capable of putting opposing offenses in jail.
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Then the playoffs tipped on Saturday afternoon at TD Garden.
Celtics Talk: Celtics cruise to the Game 1 win vs. Hawks after dominant first half | Listen & Subscribe
From Jaylen Brown’s opening-play theft, to Derrick White swatting Trae Young from behind soon after, to Smart rekindling some of his Defensive Player of the Year magic, the Celtics showed that they can take an opponent with a top 10 offense and stuff them in a vice.
Atlanta limped its way to an anemic first-half offensive rating of 81.5 as the Hawks shot 33.3 percent from the floor and 6.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc. The Celtics downright bullied the Hawks at times while pushing their lead as high as 32.
The Celtics showcased a championship-level defense. It was a firm reminder of just how good this team can be when it’s locked in and focused.
Boston, of course, lost its focus in the second half. They won’t get away with that against the best of the best. The Hawks got as close to 12 before the Celtics tightened up and secured a 112-99 Game 1 victory.
Some of the more encouraging defensive signs from Saturday’s game:
Smart true to his word
On the eve of the playoffs, we sat down with Smart, who acknowledged that he hadn’t played to his defensive standards this season. He admitted injuries and some off-the-court issues like a flooded house hindered his focus but also noted, "No excuses. I have to be better … I plan to get back to me.”
And he did in Game 1. Smart finished with 11 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists, but it was his defensive impact that took center stage and was highlighted by three steals and two blocks.
"I guess sometimes you take [Smart’s defense] for granted," said Jayson Tatum. "But he’s one of the best, if not the best defender that we have in this league. Just extremely special on that side of the ball and he shows it night in and night out."
The Hawks had a chance to pull within 11 when De’Andre Hunter picked off Brown with just under two minutes to play. Racing out in transition, Hunter got Smart airborne with a pump fake, but instead of flying by, Smart managed to slap down on the ball and block it out of bounds.
On the ensuing possession, Smart stripped Bogdan Bogdanovic and, with the aid of instant replay, got the ball back for Boston to ensure victory.
The NBA’s tracking had Hawks players shooting just 3 of 16 and a team-low 18.8 percent against Smart. Young was 2-of-6 shooting for five points and Jalen Johnson was the only other player to score on Smart. Hunter and Dejounte Murray were a combined 0-for-7 against him. Smart was also credited with a team-high five deflections.
"[Smart] has the presence to be the quarterback on the defensive end," said coach Joe Mazzulla. "We’re able to change coverages, change matchups and, when he’s doing that, our defense is special. It starts with him. I think he brought it, both physically and mentally, on the defensive end tonight. I thought that was a huge key for us."
94 feet of Time Lord
When Williams III wasn’t doing his usual defensive antics, like producing a holy-bleep block on Johnson with added style points when he corralled the rebound before he even landed …
… Williams III was applying 94 feet of pressure, hounding multiple ball-handlers before a turnover that had the whole Celtics team exulting in unison near the end of the first half.
Williams III looked spry while logging a mere 21 minutes, 40 seconds of floor time. He still grabbed eight rebounds and produced a block and a steal in that span. His 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting was merely a bonus but confirmed that he is indeed perfect.
The Celtics are just different when Williams III is healthy. There’s a different confidence that Boston’s defense exudes. Guards can get a little extra aggressive on the perimeter knowing Williams III is patrolling somewhere behind them.
On the rebound
Before Saturday’s game, a reporter asked Mazzulla how much he’d stress rebounding in the ramp to tip-off. "More than the four times you just said [rebounding] in that question," deadpanned Mazzulla.
The Celtics grabbed 73.4 percent of available defensive rebounds, a solid number and just a bit off their NBA-best mark for the regular season.
Al Horford grabbed nine of those boards and put on a clinic in boxing out. The Celtics have been prone to not getting bodies on crashing defenders and Horford often just sealed off another big man while Brown and Tatum (a combined 23 rebounds) secured the carom.
The Hawks still got 14 offensive rebounds, but turned that into only four field goals and 12 points. Boston still needs to be better on the glass overall and the Hawks finished with 10 extra shots. But if rebounding was a primary concern entering the series, the Celtics did a solid job in Game 1.
Make Trae work
The Celtics made Trae Young work for his shots Saturday and were rewarded when he didn’t get clean looks.
Nearly half of Young's shots were pull-up attempts and he made just one of them. Young made just 3 of 16 shots when he took more than two dribbles before the attempt. As his dribbles and touch time increased, his shooting percentage plummeted. Young was 1-for-8 shooting with seven-plus dribbles and 0-for-9 shooting when his touch time was six-plus seconds.
"Just making everything he does as tough as possible," said Smart. "He’s a great player, great scorer. He's going to make you work. He's going to hit some tough shots. That's OK. As long as those shots are tough, there's no easy looks.
"The confidence doesn't get going when those shots are tough. Even though he's making them, he's still in the back of his mind. We just want to make everything as tough as possible."
Added Derrick White: "We just try to be solid on him. He’s a great player and we know that, and we know he’s gonna make some adjustments, and we need to make adjustments as well to continue to make it tough on him.
"But he’s a great player and is gonna make tough shots. We’ve just got to continue to make it tough on him."