Through the first 8 games of the season the Celtics are picking up right where they left off from last year as they hold the league lead for Opponents Points Per Game (99.5) as well as Defensive Rating (98.2). The question is how are they doing this? Well, for starters, it certainly helps getting your whole roster healthy and having even more defenders capable of switching effectively on defense. Having Gordon Hayward back and another training camp under their belts has been beneficial and it really looks as if this defense is coming together quickly.
Another evident factor in this hot start on defense is Brad Stevens. He’s one of the best in the league at game-planning and it shows when you watch the games and how the Celtics play certain teams. There is a clear focus on the opposition’s stars and how to limit their production. It’s almost like the old fashioned “if everyone else beats us, great, but he won’t beat us” style. It was evident Friday night as the Bucks are very focused on operating inside the paint due to Giannis’ skillset. Whenever he would get into the lane help would be there and this help had active hands which not only made things difficult, but forced turnovers. Here is a list of the considered best scorers on each team the Celtics have played and how they have performed in terms of shooting percentage Vs. Boston:
Joel Embiid: 9-21 FG (42.9%) 1-4 3FG (25%)
Kawhi Leonard: 10-25 FG (40%) 2-5 3FG (40%)
Tim Hardaway Jr.: 8-21 (38.1%) 5-11 3FG (45.5%)
Aaron Gordon: 5-11 (45.5%) 2-5 3FG (40%)
Russell Westbrook: 5-20 (25%) 0-5 3FG (0%)
Blake Griffin (2 games): 10-30 (30%) 0-8 3FG (0%)
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 13-22 (59.1%) 0-1 3FG (0%)
Albeit a small sample size, on that list only Giannis has eclipsed a 50% clip from the field. This focus on limiting stars is working and I don’t see any reason why it will stop any time soon. Not only are they focusing on stars but their constant switching, smooth rotations, and communication have all attributed to their success.
Other than Coach Stevens the players have also done a great job and it is showing. The top three defensive player ratings belong to Celtic players (Terry Rozier: 88.0, Marcus Smart: 90.8, Jayson Tatum 90.9). This is no surprise as all three have been exceptional switching and keeping active hands in the passing lanes. This isn’t new for this group as last year, guys like Smart, Tatum, Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Aron Baynes, and Al Horford all held high marks in defensive rating leading the Celtics to the 2nd best defense in terms of rating last season (103.1).
Lastly, Horford has been the glue that keeps everything together for this defense. He is the anchor down low and his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed as he landed himself on the All-Defensive Second Team last season. He has picked up right where he left off by communicating effectively, protecting the rim, switching efficiently, and being selfless enough to play out of position at the 5 for this team. His sacrifice and dedication to defense has been an asset to this team for the past 2+ years and will continue to be. He is the quiet version of Draymond Green and I wouldn’t want him anywhere else than patrolling the paint for the Celtics.