Celtics flip the switch… with switches
Ultimately, having Defensive Player of the Year back on the floor and the return of one of the NBA’s most versatile greats makes a huge difference in the playoffs. Who could have guessed?
Jimmy Butler ravaged the Celtics in Game 1, scoring 41 points and turning 6-foot-1 Payton Pritchard into a bull’s-eye every time he was on the floor. But with Marcus Smart and Al Horford back in the lineup for Game 2, Boston beat Miami, 127-102, through to the Eastern Conference Finals, thanks in large part to a more comprehensive defensive effort.
“We wanted to have bodies before bodies,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said after the game. “Good physicality, good pickup points and good attention to detail on some guys, aggressive reads, aggressive switches, and they pretty much saw a body every time they came out and didn’t get a lot of clean hits . So we’re happy with what we did tonight.
After letting Butler go where he wanted in Game 1, the Celtics chased him wherever he went on Thursday. At the end of the first half, Butler was gobbled up by three Celtics defenders on the edge before returning the ball, a play that was symbolic of the level of defense he saw in Game 2 compared to the paper-thin resistance that Boston produced in the opener. :
The Celtics held Butler to a respectable 29 points, including just eight free throw attempts (10 less than Game 1) and just three assists, while limiting the rest of Miami’s top Game 1 contributors. With Smart creating his usual mayhem and Horford back patrolling the paint and the perimeter, the Celtics looked much more like the team with the best defensive rating in the NBA this season.
“It’s tough. Jimmy’s a warrior, man,” said Smart, who had 24 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds after missing Game 1 with a foot injury. He understands the game. He understands his strengths. He understands the strengths of his team. So when you have a guy that has an IQ like Jimmy, it’s always going to be a tough game. He’s a good one. love playing Jimmy whenever I can. As a defensive player, as a competitor, he’s going to make you work and he’s going to make you better.
Smart defended Butler for 35 plays in Game 2, and the Heat star managed just nine points, according to Second Spectrum. I took this stat to Smart after the game and asked for his assessment of their performance.
“It wasn’t just me. I had help from everyone. We all threw guys at her, and we all had a chance. That’s what it’s all about,” Smart said. “My mission was just to make everything difficult for him. We knew he was going to hit some punches. If he did, he had to work for them. That’s just where I entered.
Smart’s DPOY award will go down in the record books as an individual achievement, but it should also be remembered as a representation of a great team. No defense can succeed at the highest level in the playoffs because of one player. The Jazz tried to build a team around Rudy Gobert as the only source of defensive strength, but time and time again it proved flawed in the playoffs. In contrast, the Celtics are a connective unit. Smart is the heartbeat, but the team has other dedicated defenders like Horford, Rob Williams, Grant Williams and a whole collection of players ready to stop the other team.
The Celtics contained Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second about as well as any team could hope for with timely assist defense, smart rotations and physicality. The absence of Smart and Horford in Game 1 turned the Celtics into a different team. They used drop cover in the pick-and-roll more times than they changed screens for Game 1 of the entire postseason. But in Game 2, they returned to their preferred style, activating 15 pick-and-rolls and allowing just four first-half runs on such plays, according to Second Spectrum.
“We saw [Tyler] Herro descends a bit too much. Butler also the last game,” Udoka said of going from drop cover to change. “That’s what we’ve been doing all year to a certain extent. One of the best switch teams. We traded a lot and the return of some defenders certainly helped that.
Third quarters have caused problems for the Celtics this season, including in Game 1 when Miami outscored them 39-14 and opened the game. But in the first play of Thursday’s third quarter, the sharp switches, the defensive communication and team effort were all highlighted:
Smart started out defending Butler and eventually switched with Horford on Bam Adebayo. Rob Williams was on the inside to provide assistance when Bam rolled and when Butler cut. But that meant someone was open: PJ Tucker in the corner. As a pass was in progress, Williams was ready to spin and, as the ball was in the air, Horford came back to Butler. Tucker moved on to Butler, who had to take a hotly contested jumper because Horford was in his airspace.
“What is he, 35, 36? And he still moves like he’s 22,” Smart said of Horford. “He’s an athletic, long guy who can get out there and get through to these smaller, faster guards, and that really keeps our defense compact.”
The shots that were readily available to the Heat in Game 1 were exponentially more difficult in Game 2. A high-IQ veteran defender like Horford can easily switch screens and close rotation gaps. And Smart is an absolute bull. He can fight for position against a great like Adebayo, and his mere presence helps the Celtics stay connected and energized.
While Derrick White was absent from the squad for the birth of his first child, the Celtics still had their top six rotation players for Game 2. Herro (11 points) was contained by the switch defense. Max Strus, who also left in Game 1, was sometimes face-protected by Jaylen Brown to prevent sending-off passes and shot just 2 of 7 from the field. Jayson Tatum played with his usual big effort on defense. And the fact that the Heat were going for Pritchard didn’t matter as much with such a big lead — Boston was leading by 25 at halftime — and he provided a spark on offense.
Grant Williams also played sensationally off the bench to help the defense bounce back. He was key to the ball against Durant and Giannis, and now he mostly defends Adebayo or Dewayne Dedmon, allowing him to play a solid assist defense. “Grant is the kind of guy we ask a lot of,” Horford said after the game. “He’s everywhere and he’s been really good to us.”
The Celtics have a shallow rotation that has logged a ton of minutes for months, even dating back to the regular season when only eight or nine players appeared each night. Udoka only used seven players during the competitive minutes of Game 2 and retained only eight for most of the playoffs. The eventual return of the blanks will add another perimeter plug to the fold.
With the series now squared off, Kyle Lowry’s absence looms. The Heat could use their facilitation and quickness when attacking switches. But Lowry looked nothing like himself in his brief two-game comeback in the final round as he continues to deal with hamstring issues. In fact, he was detrimental, shooting 3 of 14 and scoring just six points in two games. Miami may not be able to rely on the veteran to give them a spark.
“I think I have to do a better job of involving everyone, if I’m being brutally honest,” Butler said after the game. “I have to find that fine line between when to be aggressive and when to make sure I can open guys up. You know, I basically have to do Kyle’s job.
Butler also called his performance “selfish”, but he passed the ball more times in game 2 (42) than in game 1 (39). The difference is that his teammates didn’t score as well: their effective field goal percentage from 46.7% in Game 1 fell to 29.3% in Game 2, according to Second Spectrum.
“They flattened us. The ball became stagnant,” Heat guard Gabe Vincent said after the game. “We didn’t move it as much and we saw the result of that when they did that run.”
That run was a 57-27 midgame scramble behind a dominating defensive effort, clean play and a knockdown shot. Erik Spoelstra will make adjustments ahead of Games 3 and 4 in Boston. But Thursday, no response.
“They tried to embarrass us,” Butler said. “They embarrassed us.”