Celtics' defense is proving to be championship-caliber
Many analysts and so-called "experts" alike counted the Boston Celtics out of contention immediately following Gordon Hayward's devastating tibia fracture, and their reasoning is understandable. Just five minutes into the season, Boston had lost an excellent all-around player, who came to Boston immediately following his first all-star season in which he averaged 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and hit a solid 47 percent of his shots from the field. Hayward was an integral part of Boston's core coming into this season, and undoubtedly will be in the seasons to come.
Overcoming a loss like that seems damn-near impossible. The Celtics followed their opening night defeat in Cleveland with a 108-100 loss at home to the Milwaukee Bucks, seeming to justify the media's consensus prediction of a lost season.
But then something happened. Boston held the Philadelphia 76ers to 92 points in a road victory. They limited the New York Knicks to 89, holding Kristaps Porzingis to just 12 points on 3/14 shooting. Then they headed to Milwaukee and held the Bucks to 89 points in an impressive revenge-victory.
Indeed, something had happened - the Celtics found their identity.
And thanks to the brilliantly adaptive mind of coach Brad Stevens, it stuck.
Limiting opponents' scoring became a trend. Boston started beating good teams by significant margins, seemingly out of nowhere. They now lead the NBA in points allowed per game, team defensive rating, opponent field goal percentage, and many more team defensive stats across the board.
Boston has benefitted from what could be described as an all-around defensive transformation for Kyrie Irving, who has long been praised for his incredible offensive talents and scolded for lackluster defense. Irving is now effectively putting those doubts to rest, and is currently fifth in the NBA in defensive rating, a remarkable improvement after finishing in 163rd place last year.
Defensive rating has not been a foreign stat for Celtics players so far this year. In fact, seven of the NBA's top ten leaders in defensive rating are Celtics; Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum are those Celtics.
Jaylen Brown (seventh place) and Jayson Tatum (ninth place) stand out from the crowd on account of their youth. Brown recently turned 21 and Tatum is just 19, yet both are exhibiting stellar defensive play despite their lack of veteran status. Brown has a year of experience under his belt, which included defending LeBron James in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. Tatum, on the other hand, is just seventeen games into his rookie season, but is already using his long frame to silence those who questioned his defensive capabilities coming out of his lone season of college basketball at Duke. If the two youngsters are able to maintain anything close to this level of defensive production while continuing to develop their promising offensive skillsets, they could help lead the Celtics to contention-status for years to come.
Boston has also proved that it can defend offenses far more challenging than just the mediocrity of the NBA. They limited the Toronto Raptors (111.1 points per game) to 94, the Orlando Magic (108.7 points per game) to 88, the Philadelphia 76ers (108.5 points per game) to 92, and the Golden State Warriors (league-leading 117.5 points per game) to just 88 in a game that once again proved the remarkable resilience of this Celtics team.
They've even proved to be more than capable of putting the clamps on some of the league's brightest superstars; the Warriors' Stephen Curry was held to 9 points (3/14 FG), the Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis to 12 (3/14 FG), and reigning league-MVP Russell Westbrook to 19 on 7/20 shooting.
The Celtics have proved their defense to be championship-caliber on multiple occasions, and with a roster stocked full of athletic young talent, it's possible they could get even better over time on that end of the floor.
Top photo credit: Winslow Townson, USA Today Sports
Second photo credit: NBA.com
Third photo credit: Bill Streicher, USA Today Sports
Fourth photo credit: Chris Szagola, Associated Press
Bottom photo credit: David Liam Kyle, Getty Images
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