Boston Celtics riding strong defense in an era of offense

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 20: Al Horford
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 20: Al Horford /

Youth is holding court for the 1st place Boston Celtics in the 2017-18 season, backed by a consistently stout and harassing defense.

A new year is normally accompanied by new goals or hopes of bettering one self. Reflection is also part of this and in that regard, I’d like to offer a mea culpa on my previous assumptions of the Boston Celtics.

Blowing up 3/4 of the roster in the offseason — for a team who made the Eastern Conference Finals — was going to be a recipe for disaster. Adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward helps in the arms race for offensive firepower. But by getting rid of Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, the Celtics were set to take a step back defensively.

Now a little past the halfway point for the Celtics (34-10), all signs point to me being wrong.

Led by a defensive-minded Al Horford, the play of the Celtics on the defensive side of the court has been a revelation. Being able to watch Boston play a game and not having to worry (all the time) if they could outrace an opponent has taken a small load off.

Focus and a positive outlook by the team helps. Boston does have a tendency to fall behind early. At times, the Celtics appear to want to see how far of a hole they can dig themselves out of. Worrisome? You bet, but it also seems to be how the identity of this team was formed.

Boston Celtics: A defensive force

In retrospect, we should have spotted a developing trend. Head coach Brad Stevens has coaxed a better defensive unit each year he has been in the league.

The Celtics currently are holding opponents to 97.7 points per game, good for first in the league. There is only one other team in the NBA holding opponents to under 101 points per game and that’s the San Antonio Spurs (98.3).

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That number is down from the 105.4 ppg the Celtics allowed in 2016-17. The year prior saw Boston give up 102.5 ppg but that season also saw six teams hold opponents under 100 on average. And the pace of play has also increased with teams hoisting up more three-pointers on average.

Helping the cause in locking teams down is that four players are averaging at least one steal per game. Marcus Smart is tops in this department with 1.3. Irving (1.19), Jaylen Brown (1.15) and Terry Rozier (1.0) all helping the Celtics average 7.61 steals per game.

The rebounding department has also improved this season for the Celtics. They average 44.5 per game and hold a 0.6 advantage over opponents, good for 13th.

Watching the Celtics last season was a vastly different story. The team finished the regular season with a -2.5 differential, ranking 27th.

A big part of the defense improvement has been because of Al Horford.

Defensive player of the year?

Horford has taken on the role of defensive stopper this season and the results are evident in the win-loss column.

Now in his second-year with Boston, Horford is averaging 7.9 rebounds per game, up from 6.8 last season. He’s also averaging a blocked shot per game in helping the Celtics protect the interior.

Horford is also a huge reason the Celtics are holding opponents to 43% shooting from the field, good for first in the league. They have also locked down the perimeter in holding teams to 33.8% from three-point range (good for second).

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The season has not yet reached the all-star break but there’s no reason to think the Celtics won’t continue at this clip. Having already played so many games, they’ll have chances to rest up a bit and get some practice time in as this young team continues to improve.

And if banner 18 is raised to the rafters, the defense of the Celtics will play an important role. Cliche or not, defense really does win championships.