Defensive duality of the Celtics on full display against the Wizards and Bucks

Last year, the Boston Celtics made his money on the defensive side of the field. Marcus Smart and Robert Williams anchored the best defense in the NBA, and in the second half of the season they were able to crush opponents on that end.

This year there has been more emphasis on the offensive end of the floor. Boston's red-hot start was largely a product of their absurd three-point shooting, but as the year wore on, the waters found their level. Offense is often still the focus for the Celtics, but over the team's last two games, defense (or lack thereof) has shown its importance with just five games remaining before the playoffs.

In two straight games, the Celtics were on opposite sides of a blowout. It was Tuesday a loss of 19 points to sub-.500 Washington Wizardsand last Thursday it was a 41 point victory above league best Milwaukee Bucks.

Their loss to the Wizards was highlighted by a Kristaps Porzingis masterclass. No matter who the Celtics threw at Porzingis, it didn't work. They stuck to the same game plan for far too long, and that allowed Porzingis to get into a rhythm. In turn, they were forced into doubles, leaving three-point shooters open and Washington punishing them at every turn.

The Wizards big man finished with 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 shooting from distance. Those numbers include a 5-for-8 first quarter in which the Celtics failed to make the necessary adjustments to handle him.

Porzingis' first four buckets of the game were all a result of him using his size to his advantage. Marcus Smart guarded him and he shot over the top. Jayson Tatum guarded him and he shot over the top. Jaylen Brown guarded him twice, and he drove… and shot over the top.

Instead of throwing extra bodies at him, the Celtics continued to use the same defensive principle, and once they started doubling, guys like Corey Kispert and Deni Avdija made them pay from the perimeter. They were slow to respond, and when they did, they didn't engage.

Against the Bucks, it was a completely different story.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate and one of the best players in the world. Last postseason, Boston used a solid game plan built around matchups and extra defensive help to slow him down. They used the same tactics on Thursday.

Antetokounmpo, who is shooting 55.3% from the field, went just 11-for-27 (40.7%) against the Celtics. Boston threw Al Horford, Grant Williams and others at him, and when he got into the post they made sure he saw extra bodies closing in from the perimeter. The constant pressure had an obvious effect on the Bucks star.

It was a clear defensive game plan that worked to perfection, as the Bucks shot just 36.7% from the field as a team. Wherever Antetokounmpo went, the Celtics were there, and because he couldn't get into a rhythm, Milwaukee's primary threat was minimized.

Boston's last two games showed the good and the bad of their defensive abilities.

Porzingis and Antetokounmpo are two very different players. The former is a 7'3 big man who relies on his shot-making and height, while the latter is an attack-minded MVP candidate who will try to get through a defense.

Against Washington, Porzingis got hot early and continued his dominance by making some tough shots. He ended the first half with a wildly contested cross over Horford's outstretched hand. And by then, he was in a rhythm, and no matter what shifts the Celtics threw at him, they couldn't recover.

Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo was forced to adapt to the Celtics. After meeting at the rim time and time again, he spent the closing minutes of the second quarter forcing the issue in transition. He got a couple of easy buckets, but as the Bucks came out of halftime, Boston was able to keep up their defensive intensity and slow him down again.

Stars come in all different shapes and sizes, but the Celtics have the versatility on the defensive side of the ball to make it difficult for all of them. They control how hard they play on defense, they control what their game plan is, and if they put in the effort, they can control the tempo on that end of the court.

The Celtics still have the same personnel that made last season's defense so dominant. Smart is still chasing guards on the perimeter, Williams is still getting healthy and ready to dominate the paint, and the rest of the squad remains intact. And while their defense isn't as celebrated this year, they're still a top-four team in defensive rating (110.7).

But their mishaps, like letting Porzingis drop 32 points on them, have also shone through. They allowed Immanuel Quickley to score 38 points, leading the Knicks to a massive comeback at TD Garden. They let Mikal Bridges score 38 points while blowing a double-digit lead. They gave up 150 points to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with five OKC players breaking the 20-point mark.

Heading into the postseason, their offense will be able to win them some games, but none of that will matter if they fail to lock down on the defensive side of the court. Game planning for opposing stars, whether it's Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell or Jimmy Butler, will be key to success.

If they let their opponent get hot, it will be incredibly difficult to get back into things. But if they approach each contest with the same level of focus they showed Thursday night in Milwaukee, their defense will be able to lead the way through the playoffs.

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