Buried amid a disappointing loss was a defensive effort Boston can carry into future games.
You wouldn’t believe me if I told you the Boston Celtics played respectable levels of defense against a player who finished with 28 points on 11-of-21 shooting. In a game where they blew a second half lead as high as 24 to wind up losers to the New Orleans Pelicans 120-115, you probably wouldn’t even care.
But in what was perhaps Boston’s worse loss of the season, silver linings are the only thing worth focusing on. And for a defense whose proficiency has fluctuated across the first 30 games of the season, efforts like these against one of the game’s hottest players are what you try and build off of moving forward.
It didn’t take a genius to determine where a good chunk of Boston’s defensive focus would lie in a matchup with the Pelicans as Zion Williamson entered this game averaging 28.8 points per game on 69.7 percent shooting over his last eight outings.
The Celtics are no strangers to sticking their hands in the craws of dominant interior threats like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo as a way to push back against their dominance. It’s how they’ve long made up for the absence of interior size. Single coverage opens the door to a 50-point night. A hard double can lead to open threes by others. But the right lunge at the right moment can catch the opposition off guard, and Boston has executed plenty against those two All-Stars over the years.
Those reps carried over against New Orleans, where an unsuspecting Zion focusing on (unsuccessfully) bullying past Tristan Thompson left him blind to Kemba Walker digging down to for a strip steal on what was essentially his first real touch of the game.
Many conversations have been had regarding the proficiency of Boston’s two-big combination of Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson. Lineups including both barely have a positive net rating, but the benefits of those minutes were uniquely suited to slow what seems like an unstoppable force.
Only Boban Marjanovic can match Zion pound for pound, but having someone even in just some proximity to his weight class would do wonders for the quality — or lack thereof — of looks Boston could force Williamson into.
Zion was just 1-of-5 from the field over the first 24 minutes. Whether it was Theis or Thompson, Boston’s bigs weren’t easily moved by Williamson’s force even after it came at the end of one of the league’s most feared runways.
The list of primary defenders Zion has faced this season skews a bit more towards the wing, where he has an obvious strength advantage against names like Bojan Bogdanovic, Robert Covington, and Darius Bazley.
Having to figure out a way to best more traditional big men was a challenge the Celtics made difficult en route to just four first half points for Williamson as a team-worst minus-15 in less than 16 minutes of action.
“I’ve said this all year: One of the challenges of our team is that you get past our best perimeter players, and the next probably three best guys as far as production goes so far on our team are, at first blush, 5’s,” Brad Stevens said after the game.
That Zion still finished with 28 points on 52.4 percent shooting doesn’t say as much about a drop off in Boston’s defensive effort as you might think.
For starters, he’s an extremely talented player and the struggles of extremely talented players don’t typically last very long. As many bigs are taught to do when looking to get it going, Williamson went to the glass and wound up with eight second-chance points in the second half.
Stan Van Gundy put his star forward in more ballhandling situations — Zion’s usage rate went from 23.7 in the first half to a combined 31.7 in the second half and overtime — allowing his unprecedented strength to be complemented by the speed and agility that make him such a unique talent in ways no Celtic — or anyone in the NBA for that matter — has any chance of stopping.
“Coaches make adjustments,” Robert Williams said in regards to the changes implemented by Van Gundy. “He saw something he liked. Feel like we could have handled the pick-and-roll better, we could have helped each other better. Got to take stuff and learn from it.”
But even while Zion was sparking the largest comeback in franchise history, it was hard to ask more of the Celtics to slow him after a successful effort in the first half still plenty capable of carrying over if not for the sheer abilities of Williamson. There’s no better illustration of this point than in the final seconds of regulation.
With the Celtics up a single point and just 10.5 seconds remaining, Thompson kept with Zion the entire Pelicans’ possession. Even as Williamson bullied his way into the left block, TT remained in his path. Instead of finding a way around, the young phenom picked up his dribble as he went through Thompson for a layup attempt, putting the Celtics big man on his butt for an and-1 layup that gave New Orleans the lead.
Think of the job Thompson and Theis did on Zion in the first half and ask yourself why Stevens would deviate from that game plan in the game’s most crucial moments.
It’s not like any appealing alternatives were staring him in the face anyway. Walker isn’t doubling off Josh Hart in the strongside corner. The play unfolded too quickly for Jayson Tatum to even consider helping off of Lonzo Ball, who was 3-of-6 from beyond the arc to continue his career-high 3-point proficiency this season.
“There were times where we could’ve handled the drive better,” Stevens said in his postgame presser. “But there were also times where Zion Williamson and (Brandon) Ingram just put their shoulders down and got where they wanted to go.”
The Celtics have now lost six of their last nine games to fall back to .500. A back-to-back awaits beginning Tuesday in what will be their final road games before a four-game homestand that precedes the All-Star break.
No conundrum like Williamson awaits in those remaining six games. That’s a reassuring sentiment considering how much attention Boston has to devote elsewhere — namely its fourth-quarter woes — to escape its current funk.