The Celtics have shown tremendous resilience after losing Gordon Hayward and a 0-2 start. Through three weeks of play, the team holds the NBA’s best record at 9-2.
Their most notable win was over the Thunder in Oklahoma City, when the team rallied after trailing 18 points in the second quarter to win 101-94. The team’s success in the second half was due in part to their defensive-minded coach, Brad Stevens. He decided to start Marcus Morris in the second half, despite the fact that the forward was recovering from a knee injury. The switch allowed the Celtics to better defend against the Thunder’s small-ball lineup. While the defense prevented the Thunder from running away with the score, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving found an offensive rhythm in the fourth quarter, leading the team to victory. Horford, according to espn.com, finished the game five-for-five shooting with three 3-pointers. Since the end of last season, Horford has shot nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc, establishing himself as a three-point threat. Irving struggled in the beginning, missing eight of nine shots. He did not score until two minutes left in the second quarter. After halftime, he led the offense, scoring 22 points out of 13 shots. Espn.com reports that Irving scored or assisted 37 of the team’s 64 second half points.
When the team needed him most, he stepped up. With the Celtics clinging to a one-point lead with 4:15 left to play, Irving hit a three-pointer off of Horford’s screen while drawing a foul by creating contact with Russell Westbrook. He missed the free throw but got his own rebound and laid it in, which resulted in a five-point play and increased the lead to six points. The Celtics were able to secure the victory after that point.
The Celtics can attribute much of their success to defense. After the Celtics made blockbuster acquisitions this summer, it was clear the team had upgraded on offense. Yet, after trading away Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, it was unsure whether the Celtics had sacrificed their strength on defense as a result.
The Celtics have improved on defense and have the best defensive rating (95.9) since the 2004-05 Spurs, who finished their season with a 95.8 rating, according to ESPN. The team has improved in this statistical measurement from last season by 9.6 points, the biggest improvement in the league.
The Celtics might have lost defensive skill, but they have made up for it in size. Last year, opponents were able to exploit Boston’s height disadvantage, especially with Isaiah Thomas on the court, who is the shortest player in the NBA. This season, the team is more capable of switching defensive assignments without getting caught in mismatches.
Irving’s performance on the defensive end of the court is part of the reason the Celtics lead the league in defense. Irving, who now leads the NBA in steals, was criticized throughout his six-year career for not staying disciplined on defense. Before putting on a Celtics jersey, Irving had an average defensive rating of 106.9, according to ESPN. This season, that number is down to 95.5 points.
Second-year Jaylen Brown, after replacing Avery Bradley, has stepped up to his defensive responsibilities. It is still early to compare Brown and Bradley in terms of on-ball defense. But Brown, at 6 feet 7 inches, has a height advantage over Bradley, which allows the second-year player to better handle switches and bigger opponents. Rookie Jayson Tatum has replaced Jae Crowder at the small forward position. Though Tatum lacks Crowder’s size and physicality, he makes up for it with effort and offensive contributions. According to boson.com, Tatum is sinking 81 percent of his three-pointers from the corners and 52.9 percent of his shots beyond the arc overall, tied for seventh-best in the NBA. He has hit them in pivotal times, a few in the narrow 110-107 victory over the Hawks and one in the comeback win against the Thunder over Carmelo Anthony.
Al Horford is still the anchor on defense. He is allowing 0.733 points per play or 107 points on 146 plays defended, according to espn.com, which ranks him seventh in the league. This does not account for the fact that the Celtics have gone against offensive superstars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kristaps Porzingis and LeBron James.
Hayward’s injury hurt the Celtics and their chances to beat Cleveland and reach the NBA Finals. Though it is early in the season, this Celtics resurgence indicates they still have a chance. Plus, there is a slim chance that Hayward returns before the postseason. In any case, things are looking up in Boston.