The Boston Celtics: Why Defense Wins More Than Championships
They say defense wins championships, but the Boston Celtics are proving that defense can also dominate the regular season. Sitting atop the NBA with a 18-4 record, despite being ranked 20th in offensive efficiency, warrants some raised eyebrows. With the likes of Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook in today’s NBA, it’s easy for defense to go unnoticed. But Boston isn’t playing like today’s NBA, and is 1st in overall defense to start the season. This is how the 16-game winning streak was able to last.
The Celtics are allowing their opponents an average of 98.3 points per game, the lowest of any team in the season thus far. They also have a +7.5 point differential, 4th best in the league behind Houston, Golden State, and Toronto. Kyrie Irving is no longer in the top 10 for steals per game (22nd currently), but the team still forces 14.4 turnovers per game, 8.1 of which are steals. It’s easy to notice that no Celtic places top 5 in the major categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks), but as a unit the team is dominating. This can be attributed to something that you find in the Win/Loss column but not on the box-score: effort.
To say Boston has the best record in the NBA due to effort alone would be an understatement. In fact, more than half of the 22 games Boston played this season were won after being down by more than 10 points. Matchups with Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Dallas, and Golden State are the key examples of this. It doesn’t take much research to watch their defensive intensity ramp up as they cut leads down, especially in the second half. You see Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum converting turnovers and steals into fast break dunks. You see the hustle from Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart as they grab for loose balls and pressure opposing guards. Even Aron Baynes goes up hard to challenge every shot at the rim, all at the risk of being dunked on. The effort, the hustle, the resiliency — it’s everything Boston was defined by last year and this season, with an almost entirely new team, they’ve established that same identity. All within the first 20 games of the season.
Sure, this defensive chemistry could need some work once Gordon Hayward returns from injury — although it is looking like that will not be until next season. Hayward, perhaps the biggest free agent signing in the offseason, went down with a fractured ankle five minutes into opening night against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ever since, we have seen tremendous potential from Boston on both sides of the ball. We didn’t get a chance to see if this was how the Celtics would have played with Gordon, or if this is an adaptation to his absence. But it’s more important to think about how his return will impact Boston, rather than what could have been. Gordon Hayward was a decent defender on the Utah Jazz and, at the very least, known for being a lengthy player. He has been one of the better two-way players in the league, especially at the small forward position. On paper it doesn’t seem like it will affect their defense, because it’s just simply adding another good defender, right? It may not be that simple. Putting Hayward back into the rotation will undoubtfully trim the minutes of Brown, Tatum, Smart, and Rozier — some of the biggest contributors to the defensive effort. Without some tweaking of the game plan, the Celtics could be looking at a new home as the fourth or fifth best defensive team in the league, as opposed to the first. But knowing Brad Stevens and his history with Gordon Hayward since the NCAA as well as his love for defense and rebounding, he will be sure to find a way to incorporate Gordon Hayward into the defensive system they have been cultivating.
An even bigger question is if they can keep it up long-term throughout the season and after. In the playoffs will they be able to hold the Bucks, the Wizards, the Cavs, or even the Warriors to less than 95 points per game in a 7-game series? Of course, it’s way too early to tell, but the Celtics are off to a hot start and all opposing shooters seem to go cold in the TD Garden.