How are the Boston Celtics doing this?
They’re playing a 19-year-old rookie (Jayson Tatum) and a 21-year-old player in his second season (Jaylen Brown), on a team with eight new players on it -- and yet they sit at the top of the league in Defensive Rating (95.9), in opponent field goal percentage (43.0) and points allowed (94.4). And they haven’t lost in a month. (It’s a measure of the historical standing of the Boston franchise that their 15-game win streak, which they’ll put on the line tonight in Dallas, is only the fifth-best in Celtics history.)
“We’ve got to be better,” Stevens said Saturday morning in Atlanta, when I asked him about his team having to rely on its defense at present to win games. “And we know that. We can’t get caught up in the results of all these games and ride that emotion. We’ve been fortunate to win a lot of these games in this streak, including Thursday night. And if we dig ourselves a 17-point hole every other game, it’s not going to be as much fun as we’ve had recently.”
Stevens isn’t just being coachy. Boston’s offense comes and goes.
The Celtics are 27th in the NBA in field goal percentage. Even though they shoot a whole bunch of 3-pointers -- 30.5 per game, 11th in the league -- they’re not making nearly as many as they’d like. And Boston’s bench scoring is almost nonexistent at present. Marcus Smart is shooting a ghastly 27.3 percent and Terry Rozier is at 34.4 percent. Gordon Hayward is out for the year, of course, and Kyrie Irving is playing with a broken bone in his face.
But, they haven’t lost in a month, because their defense is insanely good.
We’re all five just connected out there, and that’s from the first unit to the second unit to anybody that’s out on the floor. We understand the importance of valuing every possession.”
Boston has several players -- backup center Aron Baynes, Smart, Brown, Rozier, starting center Al Horford and Tatum among them -- in the top 20 in Defensive Rating, per NBA.com/Stats.
And in the middle of it are Brown and Tatum, with Brown playing the two with his 7-foot wingspan, and the rookie Tatum, the third pick overall in last June’s Draft, stepping in for Hayward at small forward. They are, nightly, violating one of the NBA’s sacred screeds -- young players can’t defend without fouling. Even Irving -- thought an indifferent at best defender while he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers -- is putting effort into it. Teams are only shooting 33 percent on 3-pointers against Boston, third-best in the NBA.
“Just our length,” Irving said Saturday, “being able to communicate on the fly, having a system that’s predicated on shrinking the floor, just being very active. Obviously we’re going to foul, but the times when you don’t foul, we limit teams to some tough shots, some tough twos and some tough contested threes, I think we put ourselves in great position. And when you have guards rebounding, as well as bigs down there boxing out and staying active, it makes all of our jobs a lot easier.
“We’re all five just connected out there, and that’s from the first unit to the second unit to anybody that’s out on the floor. We understand the importance of valuing every possession.”
Brown and Tatum are doing it every night, turning defense into offense, with Horford’s talking at the back of the defense critical to getting everyone into place.
“I just try to go out there and execute the game plan we have, and the mindset we have on defense,” Tatum said. “Try to be as physical as possible without fouling, because when you foul you’ve got to come out of the game. And I like to play.”
With so many new players, the Celtics made defense a priority during training camp. You can see it on the court -- the high hands, measured closeouts and making opponents shoot over length. Tatum guarded Kevin Durant last Thursday and was more than credible.
“Preseason workouts, that was a big emphasis,” Tatum said. “Guard without reaching. Guard your yard without fouling. We focused on that a lot … the veterans on the team helped me out a lot in preseason and training camp. Coach can talk all the time, but when you get that advice from the older players, it can be more valuable.”
Brown has made the transition to playing two guards about as seamlessly as possible. He got bigger, of course, as young players who are diligent in the weight room do. But it hasn’t seemed to impact his quickness. If he can stay in front of his man, his arms can do the rest. And he still texts former Celtics guard Avery Bradley (now in Detroit) -- the guy who’s position he’s playing -- for pointers on occasion.
“They utilize their length appropriately,” Stevens said. “They’re both long for their positions; I think that helps. So you’re not playing Jaylen at the three as much and Jayson at the four as much; you’re playing them at the two and the three. They can use that length … we saw that the other night; all of a sudden, Jaylen’s guarding a three man that’s seven feet tall, and it’s a little different. But the biggest thing is they work hard on technique and they work hard on film study every day. And they need to continue that.”
But Brown and Tatum are also being productive on offense, and not leaving it all on Irving’s shoulders to score. Brown is averaging 15.8 points per game, while making 39.5 percent of his 3-pointers. Tatum averages 13.9 ppg, shooting 49.4 percent overall and 47.9 percent on 3-pointers. (These were not 3-pointers, but they’re cool to watch.)
Boston’s next four opponents -- Dallas tonight (8:30 ET, NBA League Pass), Miami on Wednesday (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass), Orlando on Friday (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass) and Indiana on Saturday (8 ET, NBA League Pass) -- are all eminently beatable. If the Celtics get through that quartet, they’d be riding an 18-game streak with a five-game homestand looming at the start of December. Their offense may not be fixed by then. But that hasn’t mattered for a month. Defense travels, and fits nicely in your locker at home, too.
“Brad’s made that very clear,” Irving said, “if the (defensive) effort’s not out there, if you’re not paying attention, if you’re not preparing the way we all should be preparing -- that goes from the head coach down to the 15th guy -- if you’re not preparing the way you should and perfecting your craft outside of the game, being very diligent, understanding our system, why it works, why we’re doing it, why the hell would you expect to play? He made it very simple. And I think all the guys, they understand it.”
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