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The Celtics Flip the Switch … With Switches

With Marcus Smart and Al Horford back in the lineup, Boston played like a completely different team—and more specifically, a completely different defense—in Game 2

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

As it turns out, having the Defensive Player of the Year back on the floor and returning one of the NBA’s most versatile bigs makes a huge difference in the playoffs. Who could have guessed?

Jimmy Butler ravaged the Celtics in Game 1, scoring 41 points and turning the 6-foot-1 Payton Pritchard into a bull’s-eye anytime he was on the floor. But with Marcus Smart and Al Horford back in the lineup for Game 2, Boston walloped Miami, 127-102, to even the Eastern Conference finals, in large part due to a more complete defensive effort.

“We wanted to have bodies in front of bodies,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said after the game. “Good physicality, good pickup points, and good attention to detail on certain guys, aggressive reads, aggressive switches, and they pretty much saw a body every time they came off and didn’t get a lot of clean shots. So, we’re happy with what we did tonight.”

After letting Butler get where he wanted to in Game 1, the Celtics hounded him everywhere he went on Thursday. Late in the first half, Butler was gobbled up by three Celtics defenders at the rim before turning the ball over, a play that symbolized the level of defense he saw in Game 2 compared to the paper-thin resistance Boston produced in the opener:

The Celtics held Butler to a respectable 29 points, including just eight free throw attempts (10 fewer than Game 1) and only three assists, while limiting the rest of Miami’s major Game 1 contributors. With Smart creating his usual chaos and Horford back patrolling the paint and the perimeter, the Celtics looked much more like the team that had the NBA’s best defensive rating this season.

“It’s tough. Jimmy is a warrior, man,” said Smart, who tallied 24 points, 12 assists, and nine rebounds after missing Game 1 with a foot injury. “Jimmy has been doing this for a long time. He understands the game. He understands his strengths. He understands his team’s strengths. So when you have a guy who has an IQ like Jimmy, it’s always going to be a tough matchup. It’s a good one. I love going up against Jimmy anytime I can. As a defensive player, as a competitor, he’s going to make you work and he’s going to make you better.”

Smart defended Butler for 35 plays in Game 2, and the Heat star managed just nine points, according to Second Spectrum. I passed along that stat to Smart after the game and asked for his assessment of their performance.

“It wasn’t just me. I had some help from everybody. We all threw some guys at him, and we all had a chance. That’s what it comes down to,” Smart said. “My assignment was just to make everything tough for him. We knew he was going to hit some shots. If he did, he had to work for them. That’s just where I came in.”

Smart’s DPOY award will go down in the record books as an individual achievement, but it should also be remembered as a representation of a great team. No defense can succeed at the highest levels in the playoffs because of just one player. The Jazz tried to build a team around Rudy Gobert as the sole source of defensive resistance, but time after time that’s been proved faulty in the postseason. In contrast, the Celtics are a connective unit. Smart is the heartbeat, but the team has other staunch defenders like Horford, Robert Williams III, Grant Williams, and a whole collection of players geared to stop the other team.

The Celtics contained Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second about as well as any team could hope for with timely help defense, smart rotations, and physicality. The absence of Smart and Horford in Game 1 turned the Celtics into a different team. They used drop coverage in the pick-and-roll more times than they switched screens for the first time in the entire postseason. But in Game 2, they returned to their preferred style, switching on 15 pick-and-rolls and allowing only four points in the first half on such plays, according to Second Spectrum.

“We saw [Tyler] Herro get downhill a little bit too much. Butler as well last game,” Udoka said of the shift from drop coverage back to switching. “That’s what we’ve done all year to some extent. One of the better switching teams. We’ve switched a lot and having certain defenders back certainly helped that.”

Third quarters have spelled trouble for the Celtics this season, including in Game 1, when Miami outscored them 39-14 and blew the game open. But during the first play of Thursday’s third quarter, the team’s razor-sharp switches, defensive communication, and effort were all put on display:

Smart started out defending Butler, and eventually switched with Horford onto Bam Adebayo. Rob Williams was inside to provide help as Bam rolled and when Butler cut. But that meant someone was open: P.J. Tucker in the corner. As a pass was being made, though, Williams was ready to rotate over, and as the ball was in the air, Horford shifted back to Butler. Tucker passed to Butler, who had to take a heavily contested jumper because Horford was in his airspace.

“What is he, 35, 36? And he’s still moving like he’s 22,” Smart said of Horford. “He’s an athletic, long guy who can get out and switch onto those smaller, quicker guards, and it really keeps our defense compact.”

Shots that were readily available for the Heat in Game 1 were exponentially more difficult in Game 2. A veteran, high-IQ defender like Horford can easily switch screens and close gaps in rotation. And Smart is an absolute bull. He can battle for position against a big like Adebayo, and his mere presence helps the Celtics stay connected and energized.

While Derrick White was away from the team for the birth of his first child, the Celtics still had their top six rotation players back for Game 2. Herro (11 points) was contained by the switching defense. Max Strus, who also went off in Game 1, was face-guarded at times by Jaylen Brown to prevent kickout passes and shot just 2-of-7 from the field. Jayson Tatum played with his customary great effort on defense. And the Heat’s targeting of Pritchard didn’t matter as much with such a big lead—Boston led by 25 at the half—and he provided a spark on offense.

Grant Williams also played sensationally off the bench to help the defense bounce back. He was key on the ball against both Durant and Giannis, and now he’s primarily defending Adebayo or Dewayne Dedmon, allowing him to play strong help defense. “Grant is the kind of guy that we’re asking a lot of,” Horford said after the game. “He’s all over the place and he’s been really good for us.”

The Celtics have a shallow rotation that has logged a ton of minutes for months, even going back to the regular season when just eight or nine players appeared each night. Udoka used just seven players during the competitive minutes of Game 2 and has stuck to just eight for most of the postseason. White’s eventual return will add another perimeter stopper to the fold.

With the series now squared, Kyle Lowry’s absence looms. The Heat could use his facilitating and quickness when attacking switches. But Lowry didn’t look anything like himself during his brief two-game return last round as he continues to deal with hamstring issues. In fact, he was detrimental, shooting 3-of-14 and scoring just six points over two games. Miami might not be able to count on the veteran to give them a spark.

“I think I have to do a better job of getting everybody else involved, if I’m being brutally honest,” Butler said after the game. “I have to find that fine line between when to be aggressive and when to make sure that I can get guys open. You know, I’ve got to basically do Kyle’s job.”

Butler also called his performance “selfish,” but he passed the ball more times in Game 2 (42) than in Game 1 (39). The difference is his teammates didn’t score as well: Their 46.7 percent effective field goal percentage in Game 1 dropped to 29.3 percent in Game 2, according to Second Spectrum.

“They flattened us out. The ball got stagnant,” Heat guard Gabe Vincent said after the game. “We didn’t move it as much and we saw the result of that when they went on that run.”

That run was a 57-27 stampede in the middle of the game behind a dominant defensive effort, crisp playmaking, and knockdown shooting. Erik Spoelstra will make adjustments ahead of games 3 and 4 back in Boston. But on Thursday, there were no answers.

“They tried to embarrass us,” Butler said. “They did embarrass us.”