The Celtics defense has been a wall. How would scouts and coaches attack it?

It isn’t easy to beat these Boston Celtics. It’s even harder to do it multiple times.

Only four teams defeated the Celtics twice this season, thanks to a top-five defense that led the league in blocks and point differential, as Boston posted an NBA-leading 64-18 record. With their playoff series opening Sunday against the Miami Heat, can any opponent find a way to top the Celtics four times and win a series?

The Athletic approached a panel of coaches and scouts at various levels — including the NBA — to find out how they would approach the task of lining up against the Celtics.

In part one, they explored how the Celtics offense works and how to gameplan for it. In part two, they go deep on the Celtics defense, from how to attack its coverages, crash the glass and deal with newcomers Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porziņģis. Our panel consists of two scouts from NBA teams who were granted anonymity so they could speak freely and five coaches from various basketball backgrounds and levels.

Our coaches:

  • Sean Martin, an assistant coach at American International College, Springfield, Mass.
  • Patrick Murphy, head coach at Longmeadow High School, Longmeadow, Mass.
  • Terrell Hollins, head coach at Concord Academy, Concord, Mass.
  • Trey Witter, assistant coach at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.
  • Donald Hadesman, former assistant coach of the Windsor Express, Awful Coaching on YouTube.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

NBA scout A: The Celtics are so good at switching up defenses on the fly. It’s elite communication from the coach to the players and a lot of teams — they don’t even know what the hell is happening. It’s like, “Oh no, now they’re in a press, then they’re switching 1-through-4, then the next play switching 1-through-5.” I do like what (head coach Joe Mazzulla) has done to take teams away from controlling the clock and getting a two-for-one at the end of quarters by pressing and basically stealing that possession to get the extra shot.

They’re so good at slowing down opponents’ offenses to make them stagnant and force them into one-on-one isolations. But in the playoffs, when you have more time to prepare, will teams be able to take advantage of that? Can they create indecision at the point of the screen to take advantage of the switching?

Hollins: Jrue Holiday is somebody that can guard all over the court, so it’s not really a mismatch to exploit. The versatility of their defense is what would worry me the most as an opponent.

NBA scout A: You can’t let them switch up under you. Whether it’s rejecting screens, flipping screens, you gotta get past their switches. Low-angle screens have hurt them in those empty corner pick-and-rolls.

Hadesman: Porziņģis, I’m throwing him into every ball screen imaginable. The Celtics are gonna run drop coverage with him every single time. In the Hawks game when they switched him onto Dejounte Murray, that did not go well. But I think switching is great. Like if they were to swtich Porziņģis onto guards, especially in late-game situations as they did against Atlanta, that’s wonderful. You can’t just have him backing up and backing up for a jumper. Porziņģis has gotta funnel a guard to help defenders in the gaps. In that Hawks game, that was not defense.

NBA scout A: Making their bigs move in pick-and-roll, setting your picks higher up the floor, setting pindown screens to make them follow the action. You gotta move their size by putting your big in the strong side corner. Or run a spread pick-and-roll and set a pindown on Porziņģis so he has to trail the action up to the pick-and-roll. It’s all in your setups and screening angles.

At the beginning of the year, I thought teams would be able to take advantage of Porziņģis and Al Horford in the drop more just through the power of the roller and then being able to dribble around Porziņģis for the pocket pass. But Holiday, he’s so elite at getting those pocket pass steals.

Then in the pick-and-pop it’s tough. You’d say Porziņģis and Horford would struggle to get back out to those shooting bigs, but they usually stunt a third defender over to go for steals.

Hadesman: Porziņģis is so long, so he can get into those 2-on-1 situations in the drop and take out the roll, but then stunt at the right time. Anthony Davis would be another who can do that.

But I just hate how they guard. Drop coverages are too deep. Last year in Game 7 (against Miami) the Celtics were running drop coverages against Duncan Robinson. Like, get out of here.

NBA scout A: I feel there are opportunities for crushing their drop coverage. But it’s about being able to adjust to their changing defenses, because they’re not afraid to change their defense every other possession.

Hadesman: The other thing about drop coverage is that when there’s backside help, you’re letting the ball handler in the lane. So those are not tough skip passes. Those are just direct line passes to the weak side of the floor.

NBA scout A: Snaking the pick-and-roll has hurt them (going over the screen then crossing back toward the middle) because it causes indecision on whether they should veer or not. (Veering is a late switch by the big onto the ball handler).

Hadesman: If I’m hedging the screen or icing the screen and keeping them out (of the paint), I can get aggressive with backside help. I could possibly x-out of it (crossing close outs). A lot of the time I can help and then recover if the skip pass is made because it’s made from so far away. I’ve never coached anywhere and looked on film and said, we’re running this with no backside help, unless we’re switching.

That’s what drives me insane, is when teams like the Celtics run drop coverage against ball screens toward the sideline. The guard has to pick his dribble up instantly if you’re hedging and you’re instantly able to recover back.

NBA scout A: They get so much up into the ball that if you can get to the middle of the floor and they come to cut off the drive, there’s opportunities on the back side. Whether that’s screening the defender rotating over or cutting from the weak side, there’s things you can explore to get shots. But it all starts from getting downhill.

Teams have given the Celtics trouble by getting into the paint. I mean, that sounds like Captain Obvious, but you get into the paint and you’re more dangerous.

If you got a big, active team, you can hurt them on the boards. So then if you want to do that, your offensive rebounding decision-making is going to be critical because they’re a big leak-out team in transition offense. The transition 3s are killer. So you gotta make great decisions between crashing the glass and getting back against their switching.

Witter: A guy like Sam Hauser comes into the game, what he wants to do is easier said than done. There’s no room for error against any good team if you let the role players do what they do best. I’m trying to disrupt those guys and make them uncomfortable, whether that’s through ball pressure or being all over the action.

NBA scout A: They’re going to get exposed. They’re better defenders than people will give them credit for, but teams will target them and try to get them in early foul trouble to get them off the floor.

Murphy: The Mazzulla substitution pattern is pretty genius when he gets (Tatum or Brown) out in that early part (of the quarter) and then brings them back in when a lot of other teams are going to their second unit. I would be cognizant of that and for a team to beat the Celtics, they have to adjust their substitution pattern to the max. I’ve been watching them do it for a while now and I haven’t really seen anybody adjust to it.

NBA scout B: The problem with Xavier Tillman is teams are going to lay off of him. I wouldn’t use him against Milwaukee because it gives them a place for Brook Lopez to help off of and I don’t think he’s someone who can bother Giannis Antetokounmpo in that way.

Putting Holiday on Giannis to start worked well, but kind of had diminishing effects as things went on. I don’t know where they’re going to go with that. Horford has had some success in the past, but he’s getting old now. I don’t know if he can carry on for a full series with that. And definitely not Porziņģis. Porziņģis has never had success on him and it seems like they want him to stay away from that. So the big question is whether they put Tatum on him at some point?

NBA scout A: I give (Mazzulla) a lot of credit, he is able to adapt pretty quickly. If you deny Tatum on offense, everyone else can handle the ball and that’s such a luxury. Pretty much everyone on the floor can drive and shoot it. So late in a game if they want to run a play and you deny Tatum, they’ll say, ‘All right, whoever is bringing it up, we’ll have Tatum just set the ball screen now.’

Hadesman: I expect them to make the NBA Finals, of course, where you play Denver probably or someone like that. Then that’ll be an actual great series. I don’t think Milwaukee would have any shot. If they play the Knicks, ugh, the East just does not have it this year.

Martin: Even a team like the Sixers that is a threat, are they even healthy enough to be that threat? It’s almost like every domino has fallen wrong for other teams. And the Celtics are sitting here all year with the biggest question mark with Porziņģis’ health and he’s been good and I’m knocking on the floor of my house on the wood making sure he stays good because that’s the key. Can we keep this killer five healthy in the playoffs?

NBA scout B: I don’t think there’s anyone else in the East that’s going to beat them. Milwaukee screws around a lot, but they’re the only team that can kind of match their talent level. But the way Boston plays, they should come out of the East.

Against Denver, the biggest advantage the Celtics have is the math advantage. Denver is near the bottom in 3-point attempts and that’s going to matter in some ways. Boston’s a better team than Denver, but it’s hard to go against watching those two matchups and Denver is such a juggernaut in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter. Denver is just more of a wrecking ball at the end of games.

(Photo of Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Boston’s Kristaps Porziņģis and Jayson Tatum: Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

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