When the Celtics are at their best, it starts on the defensive end. Defense is what got them to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and what hindered them last season. Defensive slipups were a common trend for the Celtics last year, and they came at the wrong time.
There was a clear disconnect to the attention to detail on the defense in the postseason, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was that lack of focus and physicality that ultimately led to Boston falling into a 0-3 series deficit that was too much to overcome.
At times throughout the postseason, Boston showed how dominant they can be on the defensive end, holding opponents under 100 points six times. Their problem was doing it consistently. Joe Mazzulla took the blame for that fatal flaw during the team’s annual media day on Monday.
“Defense is what gets you in the door, defense is the admission ticket,” Mazzulla said. “You just have to do it, you don’t really have a choice. That’s how I can get better as a coach. When something is obvious to me, I have a tendency to not emphasize it as much. Maybe because I sucked at offense, so I had to play defense, nobody had to remind me because I couldn’t do anything else.”
Boston allowed 100 or more points in five of the seven games against the Heat in the Conference Finals, finishing 1-4 in those matchups.
“If you want to be great, you have to play defense,” Mazzulla added. “There are times where I don’t always say that because it’s obvious. But I think that’s the thing I learned this year is, that it’s not that obvious, and you have to talk about it all the time. Defense and toughness gets you in the door.”
Mazzulla isn’t the only one who wants to see the Celtics put more of an emphasis on defense. Jaylen Brown has also been very vocal about his hopes for a more defensive-focused approach. Back in late July, at a press conference following his super-max extension, Brown mentioned he wanted to make sure the team “Hangs their hats” on the defensive end of the ball. The two-time All-Star added that would start with him and Jayson Tatum.
Brown doubled down on his belief in the importance of a defense-first mindset on Monday. “We’ve always had pretty good, or great, defensive teams since I got here,” Brown said. “We want to keep that in maintain. That’s the emphasis.”
The Celtics have ranked in the top four in defensive efficiency three times over the last four seasons, but With Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams gone, there is a defensive void left. Acquiring Jrue Holiday was a massive step in the right direction in terms of filling that void however, Boston will need guys to step up.
With the inevitable changes coming to the Celtics defense, Brown has a good chance to prove himself. The 26-year-old does not lack confidence in his defensive ability. "At different points of my career, I've been able to display my defensive ability, but not enough,” Brown said Monday. “I think when I'm dialed in and make sure I'm challenging myself, I think I can be one of the better defenders in the world."
After earning his first All-NBA selection a season ago, Brown will look for a new first this season, All-Defensive honors.