Celtics

Celtics-Thunder preview: OKC's defense is a silent assassin

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Celtics-Thunder preview: OKC's defense is a silent assassin

OKLAHOMA CITY – When you think of the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s hard not to focus on their offensive potential. 

Reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook has been among the league’s top scorers for years. And now joining the mix for the Thunder is Carmelo Anthony, another elite scorer and Paul George who has the talent and scoring moxie to light up any defense at any time. 

But to the surprise of the casual NBA fan, the strength of this Oklahoma City team lies in its defense. 

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In fact, the Celtics are the only team in the NBA with a better defensive rating than the Thunder (4-3) which makes tonight’s matchup between the two one that will likely be decided by which team plays more to the strengths of their still-developing identity. 

Both coaches in tonight’s matchup (Brad Stevens for the Celtics, Billy Donovan for the Thunder) came from the college ranks to the NBA, and when they did they came with a blueprint for success whose foundation lies heavily in being successful at the defensive end of the floor. Stevens established a defensive brand of basketball that relied heavily on its perimeter players to establish themselves from the outset. But this season, Boston’s interior defenders – led by Al Horford and Aron Baynes – have actually set the tone for a Celtics team whose defensive rating is a league-best 95.1 followed closely by the Thunder (95.9).

In Boston’s 113-86 win over Sacramento on Wednesday, Boston had six players score in double figures as the Celtics extended their league-best winning streak to six in a row. But it was a sequence in the second quarter, fueled by their defense, that Stevens attributes to setting in motion a cushy win for the Green team. Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox scored on a short floater that put the Kings ahead 30-29 with 10:21 to play in the second quarter. Boston responded with a 15-1 run with the Kings’ next made basket coming at the 5:54 mark. 

Boston maintained a double-digit lead for the rest of the game. 

“Our second unit was the reason why we were in the position at halftime that we were in,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “I thought that they came in, especially the start of the second quarter, I thought we, you know, that was our defensive nine minutes, or eight minutes, or seven minutes or whatever it was to start the quarter – and then I thought those guys got it going on the other end a little bit, too. And I thought when our starters came back in, especially at the start of the third, they were really good. But I thought we were kind of going back and forth and then the bench got us kick-started, which is good. I’m encouraged by that.”

In addition to having Horford and Baynes patrol the paint area defensively, Boston also benefits from having players with above-average length so that when there are inevitable switches defensively they have players who, because of that length, are capable of contesting shots even when they aren’t necessarily in the best position to defend. 

And that length has allowed Boston’s guards to do more gambling defensively, something that has paid off in a big way for Kyrie Irving. Questions about how he would fit into Stevens’ defensive schemes have proven to be a moot point thus far. In fact, Irving has played better defense now than at any point in his NBA career. 

Along with averaging 2.6 steals per game which is second in the NBA, Irving’s overall defensive rating of 92.6 puts him tops among all guards in the league who average at least as many minutes (33.6) as he does per game. 

Regardless of how much or how little stock you put in the numbers, the bottom line is that Boston’s defense does not suffer when Irving is on the floor. In fact, it has done just the opposite. 

And while Boston’s defense has risen to the occasion regardless of the opponent, tonight’s matchup poses a different kind of multi-pronged threat because of Oklahoma City's Big Three which makes this arguably the toughest defensive assignment the Celtics have faced in this still-young NBA season. We can talk about Boston's length and understanding of defending at a high level all day, but players are quick to point out one of the key reasons why they have been so good defensively this season. 

“It starts from the top with Brad [Stevens],” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “That is his emphasis, defense, so we got to try and come out and stay consistent on that side of the ball every single night which is tough to do. I’m pleased to see where we are at defensively and I think we can be a whole lot better. I think we have a good group of guys who work their tails off to get better and I think we are going to continue to go up from here.”

Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

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Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

BOSTON – For most of this NBA season, the narrative surrounding the Celtics has centered around the maturity of their young players.

Well, there's a much bigger tale of growth on this team. But we're not talking about rookie Jayson Tatum or second-year wing Jaylen Brown.

We're talking about Kyrie Irving, whose desire for growth fueled his decision to want out of Cleveland this past offseason.

And that growth has in turn sparked the Celtics to what has been an unprecedented run of success.

"He's doing things that we never saw when he was in Cleveland," one league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. "He always had great talent, but could he lead a really good team? I think we got our answer now."

The Celtics (16-2) boast the best record in the NBA, which is amazing when you consider Gordon Hayward broke his ankle less than five minutes into the season opener. Not to mention they lost their first two games.

Literally all they've done since then is win.

Boston's 16 straight victories is an NBA record after losing the first two games of the season. The winning streak ranks as the fourth-longest in franchise history.

And while the pieces to Boston's success vary, the man whose growth has been at the epicenter of the Celtics' emergence as a title contender has been Irving.

You can count Mike Brown, Irving's former coach in Cleveland, among those impressed with the growth in Irving on all levels.

"To see Kyrie taking ownership of not only little things offensively, but even on the other end of the floor, leadership and all that other stuff ... I'm happy for him, I'm excited for him," Brown, now an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, told NBC Sports Boston. 

While his numbers have taken a slight dip here in Boston, Irving seems to be better in tune with what he needs to do to positively impact the play of his teammates and the team as a whole.

In Boston's 110-102 overtime win at Dallas on Monday, Irving had 47 points, the most he's scored as a Celtic.

His scoring binge included 10 points in overtime. 

And when talking about his monster scoring night, Irving provides a clue as to how his approach to the game has changed over the years in terms of scoring.

Irving described his breakout scoring night as something that "was called upon," adding: "I don't think I needed to score over 20 or 25 in particular games. So I think if you would have asked me that question probably a few years ago, I would probably tell you that I would definitely be trying to get 40."

Earlier this season, Irving talked about developing some bad habits early in his career because his primary goal, like most high draft picks, was to get buckets. That frequently led to the ball sticking in his hands too long, or him having to force up shots and not getting his teammates involved as much as he should have.

While some chalked it up to him being a selfish player, Brown saw it differently.

"A lot of it was his youth, which is more than understandable," said Brown, who coached Irving in Cleveland during the 2013-14 season. "When he first came into the league, he had played 11 games in college. Before that with high school and AAU, for a guy that talented, it was pretty easy for him. He could go out and get 40 and win and not have to focus on anything else."

Brown recalls one of the early challenges with Irving was getting him to get his teammates involved more consistently.

"One of the things I used to always hit him with, he can score and finish in a crowd like no other, especially at his size," Brown recalled. "He draws a lot of attention. I always used to tell him, whether it's the strong-side or the weak-side, guys in the corners are wide open when you dribble-penetrate because you are such a dangerous finisher."

There would be film study to illustrate this point. It would show just how easily Irving would get to various spots on the floor by breaking his defender down or splitting an upcoming double team. But it would also show that when he made his moves in traffic, far too often his head would be down, which is why he wasn't finding teammates open.

Brown pointed this out as an area Irving needed to get better at if he were going to continue ascending up the point-guard stratosphere in the NBA.

"And you know, he got a little better at it," Brown said. 

Today?

"I tell you right now, he's a double-edged sword," Brown said. "Now, not only can he finish in traffic, now he's finding guys in the strong-corner. He's finding guys in the weak corner. And he's finding guys that are in the slots above the corner on the wing. To see him make that pass with such ease and precision right now, at least for me it's a joy. It's a joy for me because it's something I knew he could do. As a young man in high school and AAU, he's probably thinking, score, score, score. So that's not something he developed growing up, at least he didn't show to me. Now to see him do it, it's beautiful."

It certainly has been for the Celtics, who are off to their best start under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens. Stevens has found a way to blend his system, which is heavily predicated on ball movement offensively and the ability to switch frequently on defense, with Irving's immense individual talent. So far at least, has been a good fit for all involved.

"Kyrie is trying to do his role to the best of his ability," Stevens said. "Obviously, his role garners a lot of attention because he scores the ball and he has those moments where he mesmerizes everybody with his ability to score the ball and handle the ball and stuff. He's trying to do all the little things. It's a brand new system. There's going to continue to be an adjustment period for him. But he's done a good job."

Listening to Irving talk following the win over Dallas, it's clear there's a considerable amount of thought on his part given to how he'll attack defenses even though we're talking about split-second, on-the-fly decisions.

"It just happens," Irving said when asked about his best scoring night as a Celtic. "Just the flow of the game, understanding where spacing is, where the shot is going to come from, when it's time to put the foot on the gas pedal, being aggressive and take advantage of certain things I was seeing out there. But my teammates did a great job of continuing to pressure the basketball."

And he continues to provide both strong play and leadership, which have moved the needle closer to him achieving what he was seeking when he asked the Cavs to trade him during the offseason.

"This was literally a decision that I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward," he said earlier this season.

Watching him inside the Celtics locker room and on the floor, it's clear that he's having a good time out there.

And his career going forward? 

Irving's impact on winning has positioned him to where a strong case can be made for him being a top-5 league MVP candidate.

Following the Dallas win, Irving was serenaded by fans chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P'" which certainly brought a smile to his face and was somewhat unexpected considering Boston was on the road.

"It's pretty awesome," Irving said of the chants. "But we got a long way to go."

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