The common wisdom about the Celtics in the preseason was they would be an offense-first team. Danny Ainge armed this group with playmakers in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, scoring wings like Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris, and a host of effective role players.
The defense? There was supposed to be a dropoff from last year. Gritty, experienced defenders like Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Avery Bradley departed, and were replaced with young players with question marks (Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier) and inexperienced unknowns (Tatum, Daniel Theis, etc.). Aron Baynes and Morris have strong reputations in the frontcourt, but with so many new bodies (10 overall), the prevailing theory was it would take a little while for things to come together.
Through 10 games, the Celtics have turned that logic upside down. After beating the Magic 104-88 on Sunday night, the C’s not only have the best defense in the league during the first three weeks of the regular season, but they're running away from the pack with a 94.1 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). That puts them a full three points ahead of the next best defensive team in the league (the Thunder), while only five teams are allowing under 100 points per 100 possessions through ten games. For comparison’s sake, the best defensive team in the league last year were the Spurs, and they had a 100.9 defensive rating.
Collectively, the consistency has been the most impressive about Boston’s defense. The Celtics have allowed fewer than 95 points in all eight games of their current winning streak. That type of steady play starts with a mandate from the head coach. When Hayward went down, Brad Stevens knew that winning with offense wasn’t going to be a realistic option in the early going, and the focus would need to start with limiting opponents on a nightly basis.
“Just heightened awareness and understanding our preparation is really diligent,” Irving told reporters in Orlando about the team’s mentality. “We’re all paying attention, and we’re all aware about what we want to take away. If we feel like we do that at a high level, we put ourselves in a good position to win the game.”
While a defensive mindset is nice, it still takes the right personnel to carry out that strategy adequately. The Celtics, surprisingly, have had an embarrassment of riches on that front.
Before the year, there were plenty of question marks about a couple of the team’s returnees. Brown and Rozier had been inconsistent on the defensive end in 2016-17, with Brown regularly losing his man on assignments, while Rozier got worked by opposing point guard on a regular basis. Those struggles have been forgotten in the first ten games of this season. Brown has earned the starting shooting guard spot, and held his own well against top wing scorers on a nightly basis, while Stevens has credited Rozier as making the biggest jump on the team as a defender.
“He has the ability to be in the right place more often than not,” Stevens said of Rozier. “He is very consistent guarding great shooters, he’s very consistent guarding guys that have the ball. He’s able to get his body position appropriate.”
Then, there are the rookies, who have not needed a significant adjustment period out of the gate. The common trait between all three guys has been length and strength. Stevens has been raving about Tatum’s defense since summer league, while newcomers like Semi Ojeleye and Theis have played with plenty of force and poise for significant stretches, to the point that Ojeleye has been trusted for crunch time minutes in games against the Bucks and Thunder.
With those guys playing to their potential, outside of Irving, it’s hard to find one below average rotation defender on the roster. The All-Star point guard has been a surprising net positive on that end with his nose for the ball (2.4 steals per game) and has been lauded by Stevens for fighting well through screens and sticking with players on dribble penetration, two issues that helped create a poor defensive reputation for him in Cleveland.
The rest of the rotation? Marcus Smart, Baynes, Al Horford and Morris are all elite defenders at their respective positions. Specifically, Smart and Horford have stepped up their games a notch given the varying assignments each have been handed on a nightly basis, and both have led their collective units well. In fact, Horford’s put himself in the conversation for defensive player of the year early with plays like this:
“We have a lot of guys that can play defensive individually,” Smart told reporters in Orlando. “Once you put it together collectively, special things can happen.”
Special things are happening already. The Celtics have the third-best field goal defense and the top 3-point defense in the league. They rank sixth in defensive rebounding. They don’t send opponents to the free-throw line at a high clip (third-fewest attempts allowed in NBA). There just aren’t any glaring weaknesses in either of these groups, whether it’s the starters or second unit out there.
“A lot of teams talk about that, defense always has to be there. In our case, we really want to be like that,” Horford explained. “We’re a team that’s still figuring things out. We want to still keep getting better and we know it’s a long year, but we are excited about where we’re at.”
While the defense can’t get much better than this historic pace (it will level off at some point), the offense (16th in offensive rating) still has plenty of room for growth. That’s what makes this group so dangerous since the hot start is primarily due to their play on just one end of the floor.
“We spent a lot of time over the course of the last couple of weeks talking about how we can best defend the paint and 3-point line,” Stevens explained. “Guys did a really good job again of flying around, challenging spots, making it tough, switching at the right time, all that stuff. If our offense catches up to our defense, we’ll be better.”