Brad Stevens pulled out the thesaurus Woj-style to describe his team’s preseason defense.
“I thought we look like a sieve defensively,” he said following a 102-95 loss to a hustling group of young Cavaliers.
I had to look up “sieve”: used figuratively with reference to the fact that a sieve does not hold all its contents. The word is apparently a favorite of his.
While Stevens fumed, his players relented. They understood the frustration. Marcus Smart said their defense didn’t reflect who they were, but everyone qualified their performance through the mini-panic that it’s the preseason. Now that the 76ers are here, a LeBron-era Cavs question arrives: will the Celts flip the switch?
If the problems stemmed from energy, effort and enthusiasm, then the TD Garden, Gordon Hayward’s standing ovation and the familiar opposing Sixers should immediately inspire the Celtics. But as Jaylen Brown mentioned about the complicated early prospect of playing alongside two other wings who perform similar duties on offense, the C’s are shifting to a new assembly on defense too with Hayward’s return.
In the aforementioned Cavs loss, the C’s played their projected starters with Terry Rozier replacing Kyrie Irving. Rozier opened on George Hill, Brown checked Rodney Hood, Jayson Tatum guarded Cedi Osman, while Al Horford and Tristan Thompson resumed their touted match up. Instead of Aron Baynes, Greg Monroe, or Daniel Theis rounding out the lineup at center like last year, Hayward defended 6’10” Kevin Love.
Stevens witnessed “wide open layups. Wide open threes. Wide open shots. Fouls,” and issues with, “directing the ball. Being able to get into the body of the ball-handler without fouling. Being able to pull over in P&R and be in the right spot.”
Hayward realized the reality of the small ball four role he’ll fill often this year. Love hit him with a jab step on the baseline, then pulled up over him to start the game.
He raced ahead of Hayward on a fast break for a three after a rebound. Nobody picked Love up, particularly inexcusable in a defense built on switching.
The benefit of three wings defensively is that all three can share the load. On the next possession, Tatum took Love and Hayward moved over to Hood. But Hayward still got drawn on to Thompson on a switch, which allowed Hood to spin past Horford for an early 9-2 lead.
That sequence does not peg potential defensive concerns on Hayward. He has more room for growth returning from injury than anyone. It speaks, rather, to potential pitfalls of playing massive doses of small ball.
Marcus Morris and Tatum faced the difficulties of facing up bigs on defense last year, but Stevens overwhelmingly offset those matchup issues by employing traditional centers. Those options still exist, reinforced by the defensive potential of rookie Robert Williams, but the defense faces a similar predicament to the offense.
As much as Boston would love to play Irving, Brown, Rozier, Tatum, Hayward and Horford at once on offense, they’d ideally position a big in to play seven players to balancing offense and defense. Only five can share the floor on a deep roster filled with diverse skill sets. Some lineups will sacrifice defense for offense and vice versa.
That issue also means they have options.
A wrist injury pressed Baynes and Theis into extended action against the Hornets in the second preseason game. Theis filled the lane comfortably, stopping rolling action to the rim with contests and tipped passes. He even opened the fast break to Rozier.
Personnel didn’t reek as the issue to Brown, “whether we have a two guarding the four, or a one guarding a five, we fight and just didn’t play with that fight,” he said, but Smart saw some of the disconnect of a wing-oriented defense.
“We’re doing things we don’t usually do on the defensive end,” he said. “We want someone else to do the job for us, and that’s not us.”
A myriad of solutions emerged through the struggles. Williams flashed potential as a stretch rim protector. He slid his feet across the edge of the paint like a wing, and combined that with his pseudo-center size to contest perimeter shots and help where needed. Horford insinuated Williams will play more than many expect this year.
In the back-and-forth sequence capping Boston’s lone preseason win, Williams switched on to and defended Miles Bridges well on the way to the rim. Bridges converted, unable to miss that night. Williams laughed last, winning the game with a block on the three-point line.
It is difficult to factor even a known defensive commodity like Smart into the five-man equation on a regular basis, never mind a depth rookie. As much fuss has been made about who starts (it’s Irving-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Horford), who finishes is a far more intriguing question. Do you fit a center into that lineup? Who would Smart replace? The possibilities are endless on this roster, but solving a balance issue comes down to only five spots.
Ever the match up enthusiast, the options Stevens deploys against Joel Embiid and the 76ers will speak as loudly as any game to the lengths he’ll extend beyond his starting five to improve defense. This long regular season will open opportunities to experiment.
“I think it always starts with are you doing well enough? Are you executing techniques? Are you doing it hard enough? All that,” he said, “then you move to: do you need to change it?”
It’s a far cry from Opening Night, but a potential Warriors NBA Finals match up won’t allow for lagging at either end of the floor. “With expectations come reality,” Brown said. “We got to perform up to the level of the expectations we receive.”