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.”