One night after a disappointing overtime loss to the 76ers, a game that left the Celtics frustrated and irritated, the team found its defensive stride. In man-to-man, in zone, against the pick and roll, the Celtics were exactly what they needed to be against a younger, fresher Philadelphia team.
As coach Doc Rivers put it after Saturday night’s 92-79 rout of the 76ers at TD Garden, “Our defense was why we won.”
That hasn’t always been the case this season, as the Celtics have suffered through inconsistency and inadequacy on the defensive end, a rarity in the Rivers era. It just hasn’t worked, as the team has tried to integrate new blood into the mix, combined with the loss — albeit temporarily — of Avery Bradley.
But there are signs that they might be making their way out of the defensive mire. This past week of practice and Saturday night’s win over Philadelphia have shown what this Celtics team can be.
“We know when we commit to that end of the floor, we’re all on the same page, that’s who we are,” forward Paul Pierce said. “We saw glimpses of it [Friday] for most of the game, and I told the guys after the game, if we continue to play like that, we’re going to win a lot more games than we have lately.”
Over the first 14 games of the season, the Celtics gave up 100.1 points per game, allowing their opponent to score in triple digits in half of those and going 2-5 in those games.
The last six games there has been improvement, with the Celtics yielding an average of 88.7 points. That included games against the Trail Blazers and 76ers in which the Celtics gave up fewer than 80 points in each.
In those six games, the Celtics have allowed opponents to shoot 40.2 percent from the field. In the previous 14? They allowed opponents to shoot 46.1 percent.
So far, the Celtics haven’t exactly ridden those better numbers to more consistent winning. They are 3-3 over their last six games, on a steady win one-lose one diet. They started 8-6.
But it appears that improvement is coming, that the players have taken to the defensive adjustments, with an emphasis on their play against the pick and roll.
“We’re just going with one coverage that we all know,” guard Jason Terry said. “We’re trying to get good at that one coverage. Once we perfect that, then we can probably move on. But early on we were just trying to do too much. We’ve got too many new faces.”
There has been more aggressiveness on the ball, as forward Jeff Green said. He added, “We’re not allowing guys to turn the corner. I think we allowed guys to do that a lot at the start of the season.”
“Guys are understanding the schemes a lot better,” Pierce said. “Over the last week or so we’ve simplified things with the pick-and-roll defense. I think we’re doing a better job in that aspect. We’re doing a good job with the guards rotating.
“That’s the biggest part of the defense, when the bigs are helping the guards and the weak-side guards are rotating, it’s tremendous for our defense. We’re hustling, we’re working hard, nobody is walking out there. Everybody is on the same page.”
The team has been inconsistent in many areas so far this season, but defense is not one in which the Celtics can afford those inconsistencies. Fortunately, it seems as if the team is moving in the right direction.
“It’s been great. It really has been,” Rivers said of his team’s recent efforts. “We can’t string a streak of wins together, but you can feel us playing better. You feel like it’s coming, just nothing’s happened. We’re treading water, but I like our trend.
“The pick-and-roll defense has improved dramatically. Our rotations still aren’t there, but they’re much better. Our pressuring the ball — without Avery, we just kind of backed off of that. I know that’s an area we’re going to get way better. When he does it, everyone does it, and it helps your team. Right now it’s just hard to do.”
Bradley said he might be ready to practice in a week or two. That, and the uptick in defense, signals good things.
“We want to perfect what we do, and then do it well and do it consistently every night,” Terry said. “Now we’re starting to get a little bit of consistency with it. Our defensive effort has been there every night. Hopefully now we can string together some victories.”
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Forward Chris Wilcox was fined $25,000 for making an obscene gesture to fans during a fourth-quarter timeout in Friday night’s loss in Philadelphia.
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.