As it turns out, getting Defensive Player of the Year back on the court and The return of one of the NBA’s most versatile big men has made a huge difference in the playoffs. Who can guess?
Jimmy Butler ravages Celtics in Game 1, scored 41 points and turned 6-foot-1 Peyton Pritchard into a bullseye at any time on the floor. But Boston beat Miami with Marcus Smart and Al Horford back in the lineup for Game 2, 127-102and even made it to the Eastern Conference finals, thanks in large part to a more complete defensive effort.
“We want to have the body in front of the body,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said after the game. “Good physicality, good catch points, and attention to detail on some guys, aggressive reads, aggressive transitions, they see a body pretty much every time they come down and don’t get a lot of clean shots. So, We are happy with our performance tonight.”
After getting Butler where he wanted in Game 1, the Celtics hunted him everywhere he went on Thursday. Late in the first half, Butler was gobbled up by three Celtics guards at the rim, then turned the ball over, and compared to Boston’s paper-thin resistance in the opener, he was in the second game. The level of defense seen in symbolizes him:
The Celtics gave Butler a respectable 29 points, including just eight free throws (10 fewer than Game 1) and three assists, while limiting Miami’s other major Game 1 contributors. With Smart creating his usual chaos and Horford patrolling the paint and perimeter, the Celtics look more like the team with the NBA’s best defensive efficiency this season.
“It’s hard. Jimmy is a warrior, man,” said Smart, who had 24 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds after missing his first game with a foot injury. “Jimmy has been doing this for a long time. He understands the game. He understands his strengths. He understands the strengths of the team. So when you have a guy with an IQ like Jimmy’s, it’s always a tough game. This It’s a good one. I love playing against Jimmy anytime. As a defensive player, as a contender, he’ll make you work, he’ll make you better.”
Smart defended Butler 35 times in Game 2, according to Second Spectrum, and the Heat star scored just nine points. I passed this stat to Smart after the game and asked him to rate their performance.
“It wasn’t just me. I got help from everyone. We all threw some at him and we all had a chance. It all came down to that,” Smart said. “My job is just to make everything tough for him. We know he’s going to play some balls. If he does, he has to work for them. That’s where I come in.”
Smart’s DPOY Award will go down in history as an individual achievement, but also as a representative of a great team. No defense can succeed at the highest level in the playoffs with just one player. The Jazz’s attempts to build a team around Rudy Gobert as the only source of defensive resistance have been proven wrong time and time again in the playoffs. By contrast, the Celtics are a connected unit. Cleverness is a heartbeat, but the team has other staunch defenders like Horford, Rob Williams, Grant Williams, and a whole suite of players ready to stop the opposing team.
The Celtics have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round, Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second, and any team that wants timely help with defense, smart rotation, and physicality . The absence of Smart and Horford in Game 1 turned the Celtics into a different team. They used pitching screens more often in the pick-and-roll than they switched screens in Game 1 of the entire playoffs. But they went back to their preferred style in Game 2, switching to 15 pick-and-rolls and scoring just four points in the first half, according to Second Spectrum.
“We saw [Tyler] Hero goes downhill a bit too much. Butler did the same in the last game,” Udoka said of the shift from surrender coverage to conversion. “In a way, that’s what we’ve done throughout the year. One of the better conversion teams. We’ve changed so many times and having certain defenders back would definitely help. “
The third quarter of the season spelled trouble for the Celtics, including a 39-14 victory over the Celtics in Game 1 to kick off the game. But the team’s razor-sharp switching, defensive communication and effort were on display in Game 1 of the third quarter on Thursday:
Smart started guarding Butler and eventually replaced Bam Adebayo with Horford. Rob Williams was inside to help as Bam rolled and Butler cut in. But that means someone is on the open: PJ Tucker in the corner. However, Williams was ready to rotate when a pass was made, and Horford moved back to Butler when the ball was in the air. Tucker passed to Butler, who had to make a fierce jumper because Horford was in his airspace.
“Who is he, 35, 36? And he’s still moving like he’s 22,” Smart said of Horford. “He’s an athletic, big guy who can come off the court and put on those smaller, faster guards, which really keeps our defense tight.”
A shot that the Heat made easy in Game 1 became more difficult in Game 2. A seasoned, high-IQ defender like Horford can easily switch screens and close rotation gaps. Smart is an absolute bull. He could compete for spots with bigs like Adebayo, and his presence helps the Celtics stay connected and alive.
While Derrick White left the team due to the birth of their first child, the Celtics’ top six rotation players still returned in Game 2. Herro (11 points) is controlled by the switch. Max Strus, who also played in Game 1, was blocked in the face by Jaylen Brown at times to prevent a pass, and went just 2-for-7 from the field. Jayson Tatum played his usual effort on the defensive end. Heat target Pritchard didn’t matter with such a big lead — Boston had a 25-point halftime lead — and he provided a spark on offense.
Grant Williams also played well off the bench, helping the defense bounce back. He’s been key to possession against both Durant and Giannis, and now he’s mostly guarding Adebayo or Dwayne Dedmon, which allows him to play strong help defenses. “Grant is the kind of guy we always ask for,” Horford said after the game. “He’s all over the place and he’s been really nice to us.”
The Celtics have a short rotation, with plenty of playing time for months, even going back to the regular season when only eight or nine players show up every night. Udoka used just seven players in Game 2 minutes and only eight players for most of the playoffs. White’s eventual return will add another perimeter finisher to the fold.
As the series wraps up, Kyle Lowry’s absence looms. The Heat can use his passing and quick offense to switch defenses. But Lowry didn’t look like himself in a short two-game stretch last round as he continued to deal with a hamstring problem. In fact, he was detrimental, going 3-for-14 from the field and scoring just six points in two games. Miami may not be able to count on the veteran to give them a spark.
“I think I have to do a better job of getting everyone else involved, if I’m being very honest,” Butler said after the game. “I have to find a fine line between when I’m being aggressive and when I’m making sure I can get players on. You know, I basically have to do Kyle’s job.”
Butler, who also called his performance “selfish,” passed the ball more in Game 2 (42) than in Game 1 (39). The difference is that his teammates don’t score as well: Their 46.7 percent effective field goal percentage in Game 1 dropped to 29.3 percent in Game 2, according to Second Spectrum.
“They leveled us. The ball was stagnant,” Heat guard Gabe Vincent said after the game. “We didn’t move much, and when they continued to run, we saw results.”
In that game, that game was a 57-27 stampede backed by a dominant defensive effort, clear play and knockdown shots. Erik Spoelstra will make adjustments ahead of Games 3 and 4 in Boston. But on Thursday, there were no answers.
“They were trying to embarrass us,” Butler said. “They did embarrass us.”