BOSTON -- The Celtics -- on a five-game winning streak after losing their first two -- are riding high these days, stringing together the kind of run that stands out for all the right reasons.
But tonight’s game against Sacramento presents a different kind of challenge.
The Celtics are doing more than just facing another competitor tonight. They must also contend with complacency -- something they haven’t had to worry about this season due to the quality of their opponents.
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The Kings (1-6) are playing some of the worst basketball in the NBA right now, as evidenced by their record. Scoring, points allowed, field-goal percentage . . . you name it, and there’s a good chance the Kings rank among the league’s bottom 10 in it.
And as much as Boston has shown a knack for playing well against all opponents, nobody they've faced so far has struggled like Sacramento. They Celtics will say they respect all opponents, but they're no different than most elite teams in the struggle to treat terrible teams and tremendously talented ones with the same edge.
Because as bad as the Kings’ record may be, they still have enough quality players to knock off the Celtics if Boston isn’t careful. Willie Cauley-Stein and De'Aaron Fox are both solid young players with clear upside, though they’re still going through the lumps most youngsters endure in the early stages of their careers. Veterans like George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter may all be past their prime -- and certainly haven't done much this year -- but, on paper, they're solid contributors.
So for Boston to survive this trap game, it must remain mindful of what's been the foundation of the winning streak: Defense.
The Celtics come into tonight’s game with a league-best defensive rating of 95.6. It's been a collective team effort, but the two pillars of their defensive success have been Al Horford and Aron Baynes.
They have been a dynamic defensive duo for the Celtics. They've paired up for a defensive rating of 77.9, which is the second-best mark among tandems to play in at least seven games this season according to nba.com/stats.
Besides having tremendous length across the board defensively, coach Brad Stevens also attributes Boston’s quicker-than-expected defensive success to the Horford-Baynes pairing.
“Our communication with Al and Aron is excellent,” Stevens said. “You know, if you go through something and walk through one time with Al and Aron, they can direct the whole thing. So that’s pretty . . . pretty unique, I think.”
Said Horford: “We’re just really buying into what Coach wants us to do and our young guys, they’re all ears. They’re really listening, trying to be better. We’re just trying to get better game by game.”