Why the Celtics' tough defense will only get tougher


BOSTON – Somewhere along the journey towards the Eastern Conference mountaintop where the Boston Celtics (33-10) are sitting pretty right now, they began to stray away from what got them there in the first place. 

An increasing number of kinks began to show in what had been for weeks a Teflon-tough defense.

Teams got better looks against the Celtics, and thus began to score more. Points were on the rise, as were the number of not-so-great performances with fewer rebounds and less free throws than their opponent becoming the norm.

And then 2018 arrived.

It appears Boston’s New Year’s resolution wasn’t to get back to playing great defense – but to be even better. 

Here are five factors that point toward the NBA’s top-rated defense being even better in the New Year.



The Celtics reached the official halfway point of their season on Jan. 3, faster than any team in the league. We have seen what Boston can do under the duress of games coming with little to no time in between. Within Boston’s first 41 games, they had four games in which they played with two or more days off prior to the matchup. The Celtics will have four such scenarios in the month of January alone. And as Kyrie Irving pointed out recently, rest can do nothing but good for him and his teammates.



With so many new bodies this year, Boston has been surprisingly efficient and effective from the outset in part by getting the most out of whatever players were able to bring to the game. But with the benefit of time and experience, players are much better now playing off one another than they were to start the season. For example, players aren’t tempted to cheat over defensively and help rookie Semi Ojeleye if he’s guarding Carmelo Anthony or Giannis Antetokounmpo because they trust he’ll do a solid job one-on-one; or if a guard penetrates they know Aron Baynes or Daniel Theis moves well enough to provide help and still hustle back to be in position for a potential rebound. These things are happening more often without being talked about in advance, a true sign of great team chemistry.



Injuries have forced the Celtics to dig deeper into their bench than they probably anticipated this season. The silver lining to that is a team that is not only deep in numbers but also has some depth in terms of experience. Rookie Jayson Tatum was expected to see playing time, but he has been among the team leaders in minutes played while blossoming into a reliable late-game scorer and defender.  The Celtics are at a point now where they can practically throw any player on to the floor and be confident that they can get the job done that they are tasked with doing.



He’s still playing limited minutes due to his sore left knee that continues to keep him in and out of the lineup. But he’s feeling healthier these days, and seems on target to play in more games. 

Boston has 13 games remaining in which they have at least two days off prior to the game being played. Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, Morris has been a solid addition to the team when healthy. Judging by the way he’s feeling and the look of the schedule, being healthy should not be as big an issue going forward.



I know, I know. When you think of Boston’s defense, the name Kyrie Irving doesn’t just roll off the tongue. He’s one of the NBA’s top scorers. And typically speaking, top scoring and elite defense don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. But with the Celtics and their defense, the better he plays the better they are as a team. Irving has a defensive rating of 101.3 for the season which isn’t horrible. But when Boston is playing right while dominating foes, often Irving’s defense is one of the more important but stealth factors. During Boston’s 16-game winning streak earlier this season, Irving’s defensive rating in that span was 96.1. He has been even better during Boston’s first three games in 2018, with a defensive rating of 85.9. Now does anyone expect him to maintain that level of defensive success? Of course not. But he’s showing regularly that his defense, while not on the same level as say a Marcus Smart, is important to not only showcase how well-rounded his game is but becomes vital as part of the narrative behind a great defense that’s looking to be even better in 2018.


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