Celtics 'D' Primed To Make Leap Into the Elite

WALTHAM, Mass. – How great can Boston’s defense be this season? Brad Stevens answered that question in bold fashion Monday afternoon.

“Somewhere in the top 30,” he quipped with a smile.

Stevens isn’t one to put caps on what his team can accomplish, so this stance is certainly no surprise. But beneath his coy reply is the belief that the Celtics can be one of the best defensive teams in the league this season.

“If we play really hard and really focused,” he said with a much sharper tone, “then the sky is the limit.”

There is already proof that Boston can soar with the best of the NBA at the defensive end. One of the key factors in the Celtics’ push into the playoffs last season was, in fact, its defense.

Following the trade deadline, with guys like Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko fully entrenched in the rotation, Boston ranked seventh in the league in defensive efficiency with an even mark of 100. That’s not a small sample size, either; that’s one-third of the entire regular season.

The core of that impressive defense, save for the presence of Brandon Bass, returns, and the C’s believe they’ve added to their strengths as well with the additions of Terry Rozier and Amir Johnson.

Stevens told reporters Monday afternoon that he thinks “the strength of our team is being able to be aggressive on the perimeter defensively.” The C’s were as aggressive as any team in the league last season in terms of ball pressure, relying heavily on the services of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Those two may have been the best defensive backcourt in the league in 2014-15.

Bradley just missed garnering an All-Defensive team nod last season, and if Smart hadn’t been a rookie, he would have received far more than his two votes. Now Rozier, another fierce on-ball defender, has been thrown into the mix to hawk opposing guards each night.

“Three is better than two, two is better than one,” Rozier said of the trio. “So if you’ve got three guys that willingly want to play defense, that’s amazing.”

He’s already gotten an up-close look at how imposing he, Bradley and Smart can be as a group, saying, “It goes back to the backyard days and the park days. You’ve got a lot of people who want to be competitive.”

If opposing guards thought it was a hassle to face the C’s last season, they might want to call in sick during 2015-16, and some frontcourt players may want to do the same now that Stevens has discovered the power of versatility.

“We also found some strength in being able to be versatile, especially late in the season, with Bass, Jonas and Jae guarding different positions,” Stevens said. “So that’s going to be critical.”

Johnson, an athletic, 6-foot-9 forward, only adds to Boston’s versatility. He can also guard three positions, all while offering added rim protection.

“Having somebody like Amir who can protect the rim, and being able to move the way he does laterally … it’s a big-time help,” said fellow big man Jared Sullinger.

Johnson’s presence alongside Crowder and Jerebko will allow the Celtics to be, at times, interchangeable at the defensive end from the 3 through 5 positions. Couple that frontcourt versatility with a trio of ball-hawking guards on the perimeter and you’ve got the makings of one scary defensive rotation.

One that will finish in the top 30? That’s a foregone conclusion. But don’t be surprised if this group pushes its way all the way into the top five of the NBA when all is said and done.

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