BOSTON – With their 108-94 win over the San Antonio Spurs Monday night, the Boston Celtics became the first NBA team this season to own a five-game winning streak.
The key to the ongoing streak? Defense.
Defense was one of Boston’s biggest question marks entering the season, after it traded away two-way studs Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.
On top of that, the Celtics returned just four players from last season’s team. One would think that such a lack of continuity might hinder the team defensively, especially at the beginning of the season when all of the new players are learning the schemes.
Well, that hasn’t been the case at all. Boston has held its last five opponents to less than 95 points, which ties the longest such stretch during the Brad Stevens era.
More impressively, through seven games the Celtics possess the best defensive rating in the entire league, having allowed just 95.6 points per 100 possessions. Over the last five games, Boston’s defensive rating has dropped to 91.9, and its players claim that they are only scratching at the surface of their collective potential.
How is this possible for a team that is so unfamiliar and so new to Brad Stevens’ defensive schemes?
The answer is persistence.
“We have a system and he does a great job of putting out a great game plan for us,” Kyrie Irving said, crediting his coach after Monday’s win. “He’s going to stay on us about it. It’s our job to perform it at a very high level.”
So far, Irving has performed at a surprisingly high level on the defensive end. The four-time All-Star was never regarded as a top defender while he was with Cleveland; but through seven games with Boston, he has more steals (17) than any player in the NBA.
It’s more than just the steals that has Stevens impressed by Irving’s perimeter defense.
“When you’re guarding all those high screens in the NBA that’s not easy,” said Stevens. “And he’s doing a good job of knowing when to peel back and switch. He’s doing a good job of chasing when he needs to chase. He stays in plays. He gets his hands on balls; he got a couple more (loose) balls tonight. I think we can continue to get better at finding him on offense and figuring out what our spots are for him, but you can tell he’s getting more comfortable every time he takes the floor.”
Boston’s frontcourt is getting more and more comfortable as well. The starting combination of Al Horford and Aron Baynes has provided a great boost for the C’s over the last few games, and their collective defensive IQ has been off the charts.
“Our communication with Al and Aron is excellent,” said Stevens. “If you go through something and walk through it one time with Al and Aron, they can direct the whole thing. So that’s pretty unique.”
Boston has also gotten some unexpected defensive lifts from its rookies.
Jayson Tatum (7.0 rebounds per game) is among the top five rookie rebounders in the league, and corralled a career-best 11 boards against the Spurs. He also leads all rookies with eight blocked shots through seven games.
First-year big man Daniel Theis has also provided a great defensive spark as an energetic rebounder and shot-blocker off the bench.
And then there’s Semi Ojeleye – the second-round draft pick who has admirably guarded elite talents such as LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis. Monday night, the 6-foot-7 wing was tasked with guarding a red-hot Rudy Gay, and his lockdown defense was key in slowing down the high-scoring Spurs vet.
Stevens believes this has been just a small taste of what Ojeleye is going to bring to the team.
“I think Semi’s got a chance to be one of the better defenders around,” said Stevens, who emphasized the rookie’s ability to switch. “We knew that coming in, that he was going to have that ability. I think that his lateral ability is just so impressive for a guy his size.”
The Celtics also have three long, tenacious wing defenders in Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart. Put all of those talents together, and add in rugged defender Marcus Morris, who is recovering from a knee injury, and Boston could truly become one of the elite defenses in the league.
The key to getting there, according to Irving, is maintaining a steady, determined effort on that end of the court.
“You’ve got to be able to consistently do it,” said Irving. “That’s what it all boils down to. That’s what separates the good teams from the great teams.”
So far, the Celtics have been one of the latter. They’ve been the best defensive team in the NBA through the first seven games of the season, and they should continue to gel and get better from here.