Defense-first Celtics put on masterclass on final play vs. 76ers

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Forsberg: Final play vs. Sixers was a defensive masterclass by C's originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Not that there was any question, but the 2021-22 Boston Celtics hammered home again Wednesday night that defense will be the identity of this team and defense alone will give them a chance to compete every night they are willing to put in the effort on that end of the floor.

Yes, their offensive development might dictate the overall ceiling of this team -- the Celtics simply will not contend if the offense continues to run in mud while ranked 24th in the NBA -- but the team showed again it is capable of stealing a much-needed win behind defense after a final-play stand to cap an 88-87 rock fight with the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden.

Celtics-Sixers takeaways: C's neutralize Embiid in narrow victory

The final play was a masterclass in defensive precision. The Celtics were forced to switch an initial screen with Al Horford scrambling out to defend Tobias Harris above the 3-point line while Jaylen Brown dug in against Joel Embiid in the paint. Horford hounded Harris, forcing him to navigate to the center court logo trying to drive in the final seconds.

Even with Jayson Tatum rushing over with help, Harris moved the ball to Georges Niang in the corner. That’s when Robert Williams raced out from protecting the paint and somehow managed to swat the final shot to punctuate what we’ll call a block-off win.

Just look at this defensive masterpiece:

Doc Rivers said the Sixers got the switch they wanted. Horford noted that Embiid’s screen on Brown was so punishing that Boston had no choice but to switch. It should have left the Celtics vulnerable. Instead, Brown put on his work boots and denied Embiid. Horford’s ball pressure ensured Harris couldn’t even think about delivering a pass near the basket.

The Celtics had already shimmied up to fifth in the NBA in defensive rating before Wednesday’s game. They’re now allowing a mere 104.5 points per 100 possessions. Zoom in on the last 15 games, since a 2-5 start and the players-only meeting in Orlando that seemingly remedied the defense, and Boston has held opponents to 101.5 points per 100 while going 10-5 in that span.

If the Celtics pack this defense heading out west, they might just keep climbing. Boston sits just one point behind the second-ranked Phoenix Suns in defensive rating. The league-leading Warriors are nearly four points ahead at an impossibly low 99.8.

The Udoka effect

Celtics' defensive rating in 2021-22 (5th in NBA)

104.5

Celtics defensive rating in 2020-21 (13th in NBA)

111.8

Variation

Double

The Celtics made defense a priority throughout Wednesday’s game. That’s not easy for a team that has too often allowed its offensive struggles to bleed onto the defensive end. Horford had extra motivation after an underwhelming one-season stint in Philadelphia and, though he tried to downplay it initially, his play confirmed a player hellbent on showing that the Sixers' shortcomings were not his fault.

"It was a very low point for me at the beginning when [the Sixers traded him after one season]," said Horford. "Looking at having to go to Oklahoma City … my 14th year. I really looked at it at that point as this is an opportunity for me to get better, to prove myself, and to prove to people what I can do.

"That year was a difficult year for me in Philly, there's no question about it. For me it was like, I can either kind of cave in or I can make the most out of this opportunity. And, in OKC, they welcomed me with open arms. Really helped me on the court, off the court. Just getting everything together and put me in a position to be able to be here again. Once this opportunity came, I was very grateful."

Horford paired well with Robert Williams in Boston’s double-big lineups. Enes Freedom added some heft against Embiid. Marcus Smart did all the usual Marcus Smart things (including registering a couple steals) and Tatum did his part with a career-best 16 rebounds (all of them on the defensive end).

We're guarding our butts off.

Jayson Tatum

Brown deserves special mention here, too. He is clearly not himself working his way back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for eight games. He got caught ball-watching on the defensive end a few times in this game. But when he had to roll up his sleeves and grind against Embiid, Brown did it.

Just look at this other fourth-quarter sequence:

So much about defense is just pure grit and desire. While the Celtics figure out how to be a more efficient offense, they can control their defensive intensity on a night-to-night basis. It took a little bit for everyone to buy in and get on the same page, but the Celtics have -- outside of some obvious lapses -- been an elite defensive team for nearly a month now.

Or maybe Tatum, while lamenting Boston’s offensive woes, put it best when he said: "We’re guarding our butts off."

Tatum added, “Especially game like this, they’re not the prettiest, but it feels good when you find a way to win a game like this.”

Style points aren’t important when you’re hovering near .500. Maybe Embiid was just rusty coming back from COVID and it helped that the Sixers shot an uncharacteristic 25.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc. But the Celtics found themselves in a situation where they needed to get a final defensive stop to win a game. And they got it.

The Celtics can hang their hat on defense while waiting to see if the offense can do enough to reward that defensive intensity.