With the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics set to face off starting on Sunday afternoon, I wanted to reach out to someone that knows the C’s really well. I was able to speak with Jeff Clark, CEO of CelticsBlog. Here’s our conversation:
Brian Fleurantin: There was so much noise surrounding the team and Ime Udoka at the beginning of the season. What helped them turn their season around?
Jeff Clark: To understand the arc of this season, you have to go back to last year. Brad Stevens is a great coach, but at some point the message gets stale coming from the same voice year after year. So the team developed some bad habits that they needed to be broken of. Ime Udoka came in with a number of goals, but one of the big ones was to hold every player accountable (which is something the players asked for specifically). Breaking habits isn’t easy, nor is it easy to learn a whole new system on both sides of the ball. They figured out the new defensive system fairly quickly. The offense took a while longer to figure out. The growing pains early in the year were amplified by the prior year’s struggles and a sense of “here we go again.” But as it turns out, it was largely growing pains and a learning curve.
I don’t know if there’s a single turning point, but it is clear that at some point around the new year, something clicked for this team. At first it worked against lottery teams and teams missing key players, but then it started snowballing, and before long they were blowing teams out by 20 points regardless of who was on the other side.
BF: Robert Williams has been such an integral part of the defense. How have the Celtics made up for his absence and how do you see the team using Theis and Horford in this series?
JC: Adding Theis at the deadline has turned out to be critical for the Celtics heading into the playoffs. He obviously doesn’t have the bounce or dynamic impact that Robert Williams has on either side of the ball, but he has a great familiarity with the players on the team and he’s picked up the defensive system very quickly. Al Horford is an elite defensive player who acts as a quarterback (or perhaps a safety, football analogies are hard) for the team, making the right reads and communicating them to his teammates.
The key to the Celtics switch-heavy scheme is to have active, intelligent defenders that can guard up and down off of switches. Then they need to read the situation and understand when to scram out of that switch or to adjust on the fly. What Robert Williams provided was an extra element of having a roamer who could cheat off of non-shooters and provide elite helpside defense. Theis isn’t on his level and thus isn’t necessarily used in the same way. But the Celtics defense should still be very effective.
BF: It seems like every year, we get a “The Celtics should break up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown” article. Will another deep playoff run finally put an end to that talk?
JC: I would hope that the second half of this season has already put that narrative to bed. A long playoff run would only put the exclamation point on it.
The funny thing about that reductive argument is that it never made any sense to begin with. They were struggling, and thus deserve their share of the blame, but not all of it.
Tatum and Brown have had playoff success playing together in the past. They have games that compliment each other (or at a minimum, don’t get in each other’s way). Both are high character, hard working players who are committed to making the team better. Add in the fact that every team in the league seems to be looking for elite wing talent and I don’t understand what would have been gained by splitting them up.
Turns out, they can succeed together and I sure hope to be rooting for them in Celtics green for a long, long time.
BF: Speaking of Tatum, he’s improved every year he’s been in the league and is right up there among the very best players in basketball. How do you see him handling the Kevin Durant matchup in this series?
JC: I think some of the growth you’ve seen in Tatum is at least partially a result of seeing Kevin Durant up close and personal in the Olympics. He’s really focused on expanding his playmaking this season, which unlocks the rest of his offensive game as well. On defense, he’s focused on the team concept and gotten back to establishing himself as one of the better two-way players in the game.
All Tatum and the Celtics can do on Durant is to make him work on both sides of the ball. He’s going to get his buckets on his sheer talent and force of will. But the Nets will be relying heavily upon Kevin and Kyrie. So making them both work on both ends makes their life harder and even elite bucket-getters can get worn down over time. Or in a worst case scenario, you applaud KD for being a superstar and try to shut down everyone else.
BF: Who would you say are the X-factors in this series for the Celtics?
JC: Marcus Smart is an X-factor in any game he plays. I’ll also throw in the fact that Derrick White seems like a low-key Marcus Smart type as well. Having both of them on the perimeter is a fantastic point of attack dynamic. Smart is famous for making “winning plays,” that swing games from losses to wins for Boston. White has a knack for giving the game exactly what it needs on any given night. Even if that just means operating as a connector that catches a pass, makes the exact right read, and moves the ball, all within a half a second.
We’ve already talked about Daniel Theis filling in for Robert Williams, but it is worth mentioning Grant Williams as well. He’s proven that he can stretch the floor with his shooting and he is a heady player on both sides of the ball.
BF: Anything that I might’ve missed?
JC: Celtics in 6!