The Boston Celtics had mixed expectations coming into this season. Some people, like me, expected them to bounce back from a disappointing season last year and be one of the best teams in the East, while others weren’t expecting big things from them at all. They started off the season playing very bad, proving the doubters correct, but something has shifted recently; since the start of 2022, the Celtics have the best Net Rating of any team in the league at +11.5 and a record of 15-6. In this span, they’ve been the best defense in the NBA by a pretty wide margin (they have a 100.9 Defensive Rating and second place is at 103.8), and the 13th best offensive rating. With that being said, let’s look at what has made the Celtics so good recently, how they can get better, and what expectations should be for them moving forward.
The Celtics’ success has come mostly from their suffocating defense, as I mentioned before. Between Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Al Horford, and now Derrick White and Daniel Theis (who were just acquired at the trade deadline), all of the Celtics’ best players are very high level defenders. Not only are these guys versatile defenders, but they give the Celtics with a lot of versatility on that end – both in terms of lineups and schemes.
Starting with the bigs, it’s easy to see what Al Horford and Robert Williams do for this defense. Horford is one of the most savvy defenders in the league; even though he’s 35 years old, he is extremely smart on the defensive end. He’s incredible positionally, always makes sound rotations, is a good post defender due to his strength, and is surprinsingly switchable at his old age, often holding his own when having to guard wings or even guards. Williams is the opposite of Horford in many ways at this point. He’s a destructively explosive athlete with the potential to be one of the best shot-blockers in the league, and covers ground like almost no one else. Recently, the Celtics have been using him more as a roamer than a primary rim protector, which I think is a great decision. It allows him to hover around the general paint area and contest an unholy amount of shots within ~5 feet of the basket. The difference in styles between these two players meshes very well and allows for the Celtics to completely shut down the paint while also playing their bigs higher up and covering more space than just around the basket.
To complement their amazing defensive bigs, the Celtics also have Marcus Smart and Derrick White, who are the most destructive defensive guard duo in the league in my opinion, only rivaled by Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso in Chicago. White has only played one game in Boston so far, but in that one game he showed the value he will bring and we’ve also seen White play with Smart on team USA, so it’s not hard to tell how good they’ll be together. Marcus Smart is arguably the best point of attack guard defender in the league, and he is in my opinion easily the best team defender of any guard in the league as well. He complements the aforementioned Horford and Williams extremely well as he does an incredible job as a help defender when someone penetrates the defense. He can guard three positions at an extremely high level and continues the theme of defensive versatility; anything you could possibly want in a guard defender, Marcus Smart brings. Derrick White is similar to Smart in this way, as he also doesn’t really have any flaws defensively. He’s not quite the 1-on-1 defender that Smart is, but he’s still absolutely elite at it and as good of a help defender as any other guard in the league. White is also unique in the fact that he is an extremely impactful rim protector despite being a guard, which is something that is pretty much never seen. He is always in the right place, and is really accurate when he swipes at the ball. The switching that these two are going to be able to do with each other combined with the chaos they’ll collectively create off the ball can only be described as nightmarish for the other team.
After seeing how good the guards and bigs are defensively for this team, you’d probably expect that the wings/forwards wouldn’t be great defenders. After all, there are very few teams with great defenders at every position. However, if you’re thinking that, you would be dead wrong because Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are both very high level defenders themselves. While they are possibly the worst defenders out of Boston’s top 6, that’s more of a testament to how incredible this roster is defensively rather than a knock on Brown and Tatum; pretty much any team would LOVE to have these two play defense for them. Brown is the least savvy defender of all the guys named, as he is prone to wandering or falling asleep off-ball. However, with the ground covered by the other 4 guys that will be on the court with him at all times, it isn’t a big issue. What Brown does bring – great man defense at multiple positions – is extremely valuable; Boston can trust him to guard a high level offensive player on the other team at any moment, and he will pretty much always be able to do it well. Tatum is very different than Brown in the sense that he is slightly lacking as a man defender, but he makes up for it with his team defense. His big frame and long arms allows him to muk up a lot of offensive actions as a helper, and he’s a great nail defender because of it. He continues the trend of Boston being able to hurt offenses from anywhere on the court.
When looking at the sheer talent and cohesion defensively in Boston, it makes complete sense that they have been so good on defense. However, the other side of the ball is where I am concerned for Boston, and why I don’t have them as a favorite in the East. They are very reliant on their two star wings, Brown and Tatum, to create offense for the team. Past those two, the most reliable shot creators are guys like Smart, White, and Horford, which is definitely not something to feel good about. However, things aren’t all bad on the offensive end.
One of the main reasons Boston has been playing so well recently is the emergence of Marcus Smart as a floor general of sorts. He doesn’t dominate the ball at all, but he is able to find everyone in their right spots and help the general flow of the offense. This is an aspect that Derrick White will also be able to help Boston with a lot. Having those two as very good passers, communicators, and movers without the ball helps compliment the scoring of Brown and Tatum. Still, the team is very clearly lacking in shot creation and scoring. While Brown and Tatum is one of the best scoring duos in the whole NBA, they aren’t enough on their own to carry an entire offense. I would like Boston to pursure someone like Goran Dragic in the buyout market to help boost their offense. Another dynamic shot creator – for himself and others – will no doubt make Boston a much more scary team to go against in the Playoffs.
Speaking of Playoffs, it’s time to project what Boston will do in the Playoffs. If they continue to play at the level they’ve been at recently, it’s not hard to imagine Boston being a top 5-6 seed. With the East being as strong as it is right now, it’s not very likely Boston makes a deep Playoffs run, however I wouldn’t rule it out. When looking at some of the top contenders in the East, it feels like Boston matches up pretty well; I’m not sure if a single other team is more equipped to guard Joel Embiid and James harden than Boston is. I don’t want to say how far Boston will go because there’s way too much uncertainty to even give an educated opinion on that right now, but there is no doubt in my mind that, the way they’re looking right now, Boston can make a lot of noise this year and in years to come.