After years of falling short, the Boston Celtics finally broke through and made the NBA Finals in the 2021-22 season. While they would go on to lose to the Golden State Warriors in six games, it signaled improvement, and they got to that point by way of their top-notch defense.
With the success, the bar was raised. While the ultimate goal was always to win a championship, anything short of that would now be defined as a failure rather than a sign of progress.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. The Celtics were bounced in the Eastern Conference finals by the Miami Heat. And this time around, their identity changed.
Boston went from a dominant defensive team to a squad that focused their efforts on the offensive end. Their offensive rating jumped from 113.6 (ninth overall) in 2021-22 to 117.3 (second) in 2022-23.
Meanwhile, the Celtics’ defense took a hit, moving from a 106.2 (first) defensive rating in 2021-22 to 110.6 (second) in 2022-23.
“We just got to understand that shots aren’t always going to fall, but our effort on defense, we can always control that,” Marcus Smart said. “You can’t control the shots not falling or going in. You take the open ones, you take the right ones, and you continue to play defense.”
At face value, the dip in defensive efficiency doesn’t seem too drastic. Offense was up around the league, and Boston still finished with a top-two rating. But when the postseason rolled around, the real differences began to surface.
Offensively, the Celtics notched a 110.3 rating (ninth of 16) in 2021-22 and a 116.1 (third) rating in 2022-23. Defensively, the rating dipped from 106.3 (second) in 2021-22 to 112.9 (10th) in 2022-23.
Year to year, Boston’s inconsistencies showed. Only last year, their offense got worse in the postseason, and this year, the defense took a hit.
“It was the issue,” Brogdon said of the Celtics’ defense. “This was a team last year that prided itself on defense. I think defense was their calling card. And this year, offense was our calling card. And I don’t think you win championships with a better offense than you have a defense.”
Boston’s offense was red-hot to start their 2022-23 campaign. For a long period of time, they were the best offense in league history.
Then the three-pointers stopped falling and the Celtics became defined by their three-point shot.
Including the playoffs, the Celtics were 38-2 this season when they shot 40% or better from behind the arc. When they failed to reach that mark, they were 30-32.
Defensively, the statistics looked similar. The average scoring mark in the NBA last season was 114.7 points. In the regular season and postseason combined, the Celtics went 18-23 when they allowed at least 115 points. When they kept teams below that mark. Boston went 50-11.
“We’re just going to have to put our defense first,” said Smart “Not really worry about shots, make or miss. Defense is key because even though you miss shots, your defense can save you a lot of the time. And, a lot of times, our defense has been our kryptonite when we’re not making shots.”
But what about the 2021-22 season?
In the regular season and playoffs, the Celtics went 22-4 when they shot 40% or better from behind the three-point line. When Boston failed to reach that mark, they went 43-37.
Meanwhile, the league-average scoring number was 110.6 in the 2021-22 season. When the Celtics allowed 111 points or more, they went 11-20, including the playoffs. In games they held teams to under that number, they went 54-21.
The Celtics faced the same exact problems this past year as they did the year prior. They just flipped to the opposite side of the ball.
Boston had more games where they shot above 40% from deep this year, so they were able to win more games that way. However, they also failed to reach the defensive goal of holding a team under the league-average scoring mark. The year prior, it was the opposite. They reached their defensive quota more often, but their shooting numbers weren’t quite there.
Unfortunately, their shooting success ran out of gas by the end of the season. Boston held Miami to 115 or fewer points in five of the seven Eastern Conference finals games, but they shot below 30% from three in four.
“We shot 21% from three,” Joe Mazzulla said of the reason the Celtics lost Game 7 against the Heat. “Defense was still there.”
But while the Celtics’ offense was the clearer problem in their final playoff performance, the defense definitely took a backseat this season.
“We just got to continue to put defense first,” Smart said after Boston’s Game 7 loss to Miami. “We were so bad on offense last year that it was a main focus for us this year. And unfortunately, our defense took a hit from it.”
And most importantly, they can’t let their offensive struggles affect their play on the defensive end, as it so often did this past season.
“Offense fluctuates from night to night, but defense can always, for the most part, maintain,” said Jayson Tatum. “Even when you miss shots, you still got to lock in on the defensive end.”
This isn’t to say the Celtics should adopt a new offensive philosophy. In fact, Mazzulla made it clear after Game 7 that he doesn’t believe Boston took too many threes this season. Implementing a better backup plan for when the threes don’t fall should be a priority.
However, Boston does need to find a better balance.
Within a year, their team’s identity shifted from one end of the ball to the other. They found success on both ends each season, but it was clear what their strength was from year to year.
Finding a balance should be Boston’s offseason objective. They can be an elite team on both ends of the court. The key will be achieving those successes simultaneously.