When the Boston Celtics are the best defensively, they are the best team in the NBA. They can play with the perfect mix of strength and discipline; they show bodies in all the important support positions, fly out to shooters in close-ups, communicate, spin, and position themselves effectively on the weak side, all while not falling for the fake pump and bait techniques.
The problem is that until Game 4 against the Heat – in other words, for two and a half playoff series – C were unable to achieve this level of connectivity and togetherness on defense. In fact, they couldn’t even get close.
The difference between what Boston looks like when they play poorly on defense (as they did for most of the ATL and PHI series) and how they looked in Game 5 is perhaps the most surprising discrepancy in the league. No other team has such a glaring drop between the best and worst results. Just look at Game 3 and then look at Game 5 of the current series – it’s hard to fathom that these efforts came from the same team.
The Celtics’ level of intensity and defensive strength has thus become a litmus test of how committed they are to the game. (Don’t ask me why you can’t invest in them everyone game. I’ve been trying to figure this out for several years now.) And if you had to pick a single player, it’s a litmus test Down the litmus test – that is, one player whose level of defensive strength and vigor could accurately predict the intensity and effort of the entire team on defense – in my opinion, would be Jayson Tatum.
As stark as the difference between the Celtics’ tight defense and their poor defense is, the difference is even more pronounced with Jayson Tatum individually. He can go from looking like an average NBA defenseman to a top five defenseman in the league; when he is focused and plays with effort and strength, Jayson Tatum is an All-Defense First Team.
In Game 5, Jayson showed glimpses of his true defensive potential (we’ll get to what JT’s top defensive player looks like later). He didn’t hold it all game, but he was a defensive nightmare for Miami at times.
Part of what makes Tatum so influential defensively is his size and athleticism, and by extension, his versatility. He is able to defend any player on the Heat because he is strong and tough enough to get along with the likes of Bam Adebayo and Cody Zeller, but he is also quick and agile enough to keep up with Jimmy Butler and Gabe Vincent.
Here, Deuce’s dad supplies Adebayo at the baseline and gives him absolutely nothing on the edge. Bam thinks he’s strong enough to push Tatum back and sneak under the left side of the hoop, but Tatum is too strong.
Tatum is able to protect Adebayo quite effectively – with a good trench and the help of Marcus Smart and the duo of Grant and Rob Williams – in semi-isolation. Even though he gets pushed back, Jayson is long enough for a really solid fight for a lucky shot from the bank.
As I said before, Tatum is also capable of defending Jimmy. Not only that, but it’s arguably the Celtics’ most favorite matchup against the Starwing.
Here Jayson is penalized for a fictitious foul, but you can tell he’s locked up and ready to slide on Butler.
Tatum’s size and athleticism are so effective; just a complete isolation photo from Butler, and he can’t find anything on JT. The Celtics need to find more ways to find this defensive matchup (STOP SOFT OFF JIMMY’S TATUM, JOE).
When I think of Tatum’s defensive top, I think of Round 1 last season against Brooklyn. His level of commitment to foot-slipping, screen fighting, and foul-free competition was unlike anything I’d seen from him since (except for brief, inconsistent glimpses during this season’s NBA playoffs).
Check out some of these amazing defensive moves Just Game 1 against the Nets. Tatum has been as closed off as I’ve seen him, and if he can get to that level against the Heat moving forward, it will greatly increase Boston’s chances of continuing their defensive dominance.
More of that, JT!