Celtics

The Celtics have hit a new defensive level: 6 takeaways from Celtics vs. Hawks

"Right now, we’re playing our best basketball of the season."

Celtics Hawks
Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum goes to shoot against Atlanta Hawks' Onyeka Okongwu (17) and De'Andre Hunter during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game. AP Photo/Winslow Townson

Here are the takeaways as the Celtics rallied in the second half to beat the Hawks 105-95, claiming their eighth straight win.

1. At some point this season, we may run out of adjectives for the Celtics’ defense, but for now descriptors like “hard-nosed, dogged, tough-minded, smothering, shape-shifting” all feel appropriate. On Sunday, in a contest between the NBA’s third-best offense and its second-best defense, the defensive-minded Celtics came out with an impressive win. The Hawks’ point total matched the Celtics’ defensive rating over the last 10 games: A staggering 95.4 points per 100 possessions, which is first by a mile. For context, the best defensive rating across the league this season belongs to the Warriors at 104.1. The Celtics have been whittling away by the game between themselves and the Warriors consistently over the last two months and are now at 105.0 this season.

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Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford weren’t bad defenders, but there are no weak links since the trade deadline. You can’t easily drive past Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum. If you do, you can’t easily score over Al Horford, and you certainly can’t easily score over Robert Williams. You can’t consistently fool the Celtics off the ball. You can’t even get Williams in the air any more. Grant Williams is no slouch off the bench. Derrick White and Marcus Smart are the Spiderman meme pointing at each other while they (legally) maul opposing ball-handlers.

Trae Young finished with 30 points on 26 shots, but he was 4-for-13 from the field in the second half as the Celtics made their huge third-quarter run. Smart and White both defended him at times (and did well) but the first three misses were all forced by Celtics bigs who were caught on switches. Horford stayed down and stopped Young in isolation. Robert Williams slid over and challenged a floater that rimmed out when the Hawks added a second screen to the pick-and-roll. Grant Williams got beaten by a pick-and-roll three, but then recovered nicely the next time he saw the action and forced a miss.

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The Celtics’ defense is impressive, and it runs throughout the roster: Guards, wings and bigs can all slam the door. You might be wondering what the Celtics’ ceiling looks like after an eight-game winning streak. Their ability to bludgeon opponents to death is the reason we can’t be certain we’ve seen it yet.

2. As Tatum dropped 38 points on the Hawks, the ABC cameras panned to his young son Deuce sitting in the front row. Deuce, it seems, had better things to do than watch his dad score 30 points yet again.

Deuce may have missed a 25-point second-half by his dad including a couple of “I’m too strong for you” drives that increasingly seem to be a part of Tatum’s bag.

It’s probably fine. There will be more.

3. Suddenly, the Celtics — who were artistic in their ability to blow leads through the first few months of the season — are closing teams out confidently and consistently. They are fourth in fourth-quarter net rating in their last 15 games, outscoring opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions.

“I think we’re just cooking,” Tatum said. “Obviously, this game and last game, it felt like we gave up too many points and then the second half, we buckled down a little bit, made some adjustments and I think we locked down more in the second half and it really showed.”

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On Sunday, the big difference was the third quarter — the Celtics turned a 10-point halftime deficit into a nine-point lead. Still, that resilience was missing as recently as December.

“It’s like, we didn’t win a championship,” Tatum said, smiling. “Today didn’t make or break the season. I’m going to tell y’all I told y’all when we win a championship one day. But until then, main thing that matters is just the process of getting there.”

4. The Marcus Smart/Derrick White duo is a fascinating look for the Celtics, especially since White appears to immediately be a part of the closing lineup. On Sunday, White finished 2-for-10 from 3-point range — the type of shooting line that sent Smart’s critics into hysterics over the last few years — but both players undeniably impacted winning.

“Derrick is a threat,” Brown said. “You’ve gotta respect him, you’ve got to guard him. He makes shots, plays the game like a playmaker. So it just opens the floor up for everybody else. Having Derrick out there as just another guy who just fits right in. Capable shooter, can also drive and make plays for others and is another guy on the defensive end who can help us get stops, take charges, etc.

“So it’s been great having him out there. Two games so far and it’s only going to get better.”

5. Who is Tatum cheering for in that other sporting event that happens Sunday?

6. The Celtics now have sole possession of sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a chance to make up more ground when they travel to Philadelphia to take on the fifth-place Sixers. All of the best teams in the East are bunched up at the top of the conference, only a few tantalizing games ahead of the Celtics.

“We just have to win as many games as we can and see where the chips fall from there,” Brown said. “Can’t get too caught up in what other teams are doing. Just have to focus on what we’re doing right now.

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“Right now, we’re playing our best basketball of the season.”

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