Defense is what's fueling the Celtics' strong play of late

Defense is what's fueling the Celtics' strong play of late

BOSTON -- The Los Angeles Lakers came to town and got crushed by the Boston Celtics. 

Up next was Memphis, a red-hot team on the rise with a next-level rookie leading the way, who got one of those back-of-the-woodshed beatdowns. 

The Celtics are coming off their best back-to-back performances this season and are looking to continue that strong play away from the TD Garden with the next three games on the road, beginning with Friday night’s matchup at Orlando. 

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Indeed, there is an undeniable amount of pressure on them to continue on their winning ways. 

And the key to that success lies in their defense; specifically their ability to apply pressure at a consistent level. 

The last two games have seen the Celtics deliver the defensive hammer in a way we have not seen with this kind of consistency. 

Yes, it’s only two games. 

But here’s the thing. 

You can probably count the minutes in those two games that Boston hasn’t played with a sharp edge defensively, on the one hand. 

And the numbers only amplify how well they have ratcheted up their play at that end of the floor lately. 

In the last two games, Boston’s defense has averaged 25.0 points off turnovers which is tops in the league, 22.5 fast-break points which ranks second in the NBA in the last two games, and they are limiting opponents to just 10.0 points via fast-breaks which is the league’s fifth-lowest average in the last two games. 

Blanketing teams with pressure defensively has been something Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been imploring his players to do all season. 

“Without any resistance, they catch it inside the three-point line or at the three-point line without any resistance, then we’re in trouble,” Stevens said. “Our best rim defense is keeping the ball away from it.”

And lately, the Celtics have done this at an elite level with their position-less brand of basketball paying dividends by being able to switch constantly defensively and not being burned by a bad matchup. 

Daniel Theis has been particularly impressive recently. 

This season, Theis has a defensive rating of 103.4 but in the last two games, his defensive rating is a strong 78.9. 

And when you start looking at Boston’s other core players, they too have seen a noticeable improvement in their defensive ratings such as Jayson Tatum (101.8 defensive rating this season, 80.2 in the last two games); Gordon Hayward (104.7 this season, 91.3 defensive rating the last two games); and Kemba Walker whose defensive rating of 108.6 has taken a major nose dive the last two games, to 94.8. 

“We have to be a defense-first kind of team; we are,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston earlier this week. “When we let our defense leads the way for us, good things usually happen.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Friday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

It's getting hard to defend lack of Celtics' Marcus Smart in DPoY conversation

It's getting hard to defend lack of Celtics' Marcus Smart in DPoY conversation

Finalists for the NBA’s six performance awards were unveiled Saturday and there were no Celtics on the list.

That’s not all that surprising, but the one category that will stick in the craw of Celtics fans — and Celtics players, too, evidently — is Marcus Smart not being among the finalists for Defensive Player of the Year.

Hammering home the notion that it’s become a big man-only award, the trio that did make the DPoY cut were the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lakers’ Anthony Davis, and Jazz’s Rudy Gobert. Make no mistake, all three deserve their spots and it’s much easier to quantify their defensive impact with publicly available data. Alas, the eyeball test tends to suggest that few players make the sort of impact that Smart does on the defensive end.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Sunday at 4 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 5 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

And the quarter century wait for a guard to win the award will continue, even if Smart keeps making a heck of a case for himself. It’s time the rest of the NBA take note of the way Smart impacts Boston’s defense on a nightly basis.

A global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters voted for the league awards before teams started play inside the bubble but all you need to do is rewind to Friday night for an example of what makes Smart so special on the defensive end.

It's easy to focus on the end of this sequence — with Smart lunging on the floor for a loose ball and still having the presence of mind to push the ball forward to get teammate Brad Wanamaker a transition layup. But rewind the tape to the start of the possession and watch Smart spin his way through a Serge Ibaka screen to stymie a Fred VanVleet drive. In fact, Smart ends up shuffling another 30 feet to prevent any shot attempts then, once VanVleet has given up the ball, Smart is still in position to pounce when the rock popped free.

In Friday’s game, Smart split most of his night on VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Kyle Lowry. But he also took turns on all of Toronto’s bigs, logging nearly a handful of partial possessions against Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. None of them registered a shot attempt against Smart, telling in a situation where you might think a size mismatch would leave an opponent forcing a shot.

This is not unique for Smart. He spent nearly as much time on Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk as he did on Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, and Duncan Robinson earlier in the week against Miami. Smart logged his most possession time against Antetokounmpo in Boston’s seeding game opener (and Khris Middleton was second most).

This, in a nutshell, is Smart’s case for why he deserves more consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s dubbed himself a stretch-6 and often notes that he offers more defensive flexibility than the bigs who simply clog up the path to the basket. Smart wonders how those bigs would fare if they routinely picked up quicker point guards, the way he often takes on the challenge of defending 5s that have as much as a foot size advantage on him.

The Celtics have the fourth best defense in the NBA, in part, because of Smart. Even without the sort of backline defensive anchor that dominates the DPOY conversation, Boston has thrived because of the defensive tone that Smart sets.

This didn’t always feel like Smart’s best defensive season overall but it was one that really hammered home his versatility, particularly with how often he defended big men this year. He should be rewarded for that, and maybe he will be if he lands another spot on the All-Defense first team.

Until then, Smart will simply keep using these sort of snubs as motivation to show he’s among the most impactful defenders in the league. All while guarding the big men that keep taking home this trophy.

Celtics vs. Magic live stream: Watch 2020 NBA seeding game online

Celtics vs. Magic live stream: Watch 2020 NBA seeding game online

The Boston Celtics will aim to extend their NBA seeding game win streak to three games when they play the Orlando Magic inside the Florida bubble on Sunday night.

The Celtics are coming off back-to-back wins versus the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. The victory over the Raptors was particularly impressive given Toronto's status as the second-place team in the Eastern Conference. The C's also snapped the Raptors' 11-game win streak, which was the longest active streak in the league at the time.

The Magic are the eighth seed in the East and still have a chance to jump ahead of the Brooklyn Nets for the No. 7 seed. Orlando is currently slated to play the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 2020 NBA playoffs, which probably would be a sweep for the conference leaders. Getting out of the No. 8 seed and taking part in the No. 2 vs. No. 7 first-round matchup would be ideal for the Magic, so they certainly have something to play for Sunday versus the Celtics.

Speaking of seeding, if the Celtics beat the Magic, they will clinch the No. 3 seed in the East.

NBC Sports Boston has you covered with complete coverage of Celtics vs. Magic, starting at 4 p.m. ET with "Celtics Pregame Live". Tip-off is scheduled for 5 p.m. on NBC Sports Boston, with complete postgame analysis after the final buzzer on "Celtics Postgame Live."



BEFORE THE GAME: At 4 p.m., Celtics Pregame Live presented by TD Bank gets you ready for the game with reports from Mike Gorman, Brian Scalabrine, Kyle Draper, Kendrick Perkins, Abby Chin, Chris Forsberg and A. Sherrod Blakely. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream.

AT HALFTIME: Tune in to watch a breakdown of the first two quarters on Celtics Halftime Live. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream.

AFTER THE GAME: As soon as the game ends, tune to Celtics Postgame Live presented by New England Ford for analysis, commentary and player reaction. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream

Questions on our livestream? Get all your questions answered here on our Streaming FAQ.



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