By setting up a whole new defensive system when he arrived at the Boston Celtics, first-year head coach Ime Udoka knew his team would likely need some time to adjust.
This was confirmed in the first five games of the regular season, as the C’s struggled with a defensive rating of 110.6, which placed them 23rd in the NBA in that department.
However, in the last four games, Boston has started to show steady improvement, posting a defensive rating of 98.5, which ranks fourth in the league during that span.
“Some of the things that we asked them to do early on probably weren’t natural for everyone, so we knew it was going to take time,” Udoka said after Saturday morning’s shootout in Dallas. “But you just have to keep working.”
And so, they did.
After losing to the Washington Wizards 116-107 in regulation on Oct. 27, the Cs rebounded defensively two nights later holding Washington at 115 in a double overtime loss on the road. Then on Monday night, they outscored a Chicago team to a 94-75 loss in the first 33 minutes of action at TD Garden, before relaxing and allowing the Bulls to fight for a 128-114 victory. .
Despite those two losses, the team felt they were making progress at least defensively. Al Horford told the team after the Chicago game that wins will come if they continue to exert constant pressure.
“After the game we lost, [Al] made us sit down and he said, let’s eat, ”recalls Rob Williams. “He just told us to kiss him, embrace the loss, take the damage and keep pushing.”
Sure enough, Boston’s persistent effort turned into wins on this week’s two-game trip to Florida. First, the C’s knocked out the Orlando Magic with a 92-79 win. And then they torched the Miami Heat’s top spot with a 95-78 win.
It was the first time since April 2012 that Boston has held back-to-back opponents under 80 points, with the latter nonetheless coming against the NBA’s top-ranked offense.
“What has been really impressive is the defense of the team,” said Udoka, recalling last week and more improvements. “The spins behind him really intensified, showing us the crowd, shifting gears, keeping the guys off the rim, then everyone covering their backs. So when you watch the movie you’ve seen in the last five games, we’ve been number eight in defense. Even in the games we lost, we played really well and just had a few offensive breakdowns. So we feel good even in the losses, and then that just translated into these last two games. But the effort, understanding and responsibility for each other has been tremendous in these games. ”
Team defense is the foundation of the Udoka system. The style of change he implemented forces Boston defenders to often switch / switch to different defensive assignments mid-game in order to disrupt the flow of an opposing attack.
The transition to such a system also requires collective patience to be on the same page. However, the team embraces the adjustment process.
“There haven’t been a lot of changes in my rookie year,” said Williams. “It’s something I’ve told all my coaches and teammates about – it’s something I’m working on and I love the challenge. I like the challenge of going to the guards.
There is also the challenge of knowing exactly when to change and when to stay on its original mission.
“We don’t need to activate some things, and they understand that better,” Udoka said. “And then when a guy is put on a bad patch, we support each other. And that’s what we did right. They will try to take advantage of the lags and we have the counters behind that. So I think we’ve kind of been on the verge of recognizing that, looking like second nature out there. ”
The same couldn’t have been said in the first week and more of the season, but the Celtics have come a long way since then. They look a lot more comfortable on the defensive end, they work better as a team, their understanding of Udoka’s system has improved and the results are starting to show. It’s a rising trend the Cs hope to continue on Saturday night against the Mavericks, as they look to raise their record to 5-5 in the final game of their three-game road trip.