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BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics have shown the ability to be ready for anything when it comes to their roster.
But Enes Kanter racking up six blocked shots?
It was in Boston’s 109-92 win at Charlotte on New Year’s Eve, an ideal performance for a player whose defense has always been sketchy at best.
The result led to lots of jokes making the rounds inside the Celtics locker room afterward.
“I have to go back and watch the six blocked shots. I’m not sure he had six blocked shots, but whatever,” quipped Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “I don’t know what people call blocked shots these days.”
Kanter’s individual stats defensively that game underscore the big picture which is that Kanter, for years a basketball sieve when it comes to defense, has become the latest reclamation project to find their defensive strides with the Celtics.
Kanter came to Boston with a well-earned reputation as a low-post scorer and rebounder, strengths that certainly fit in well with Boston’s needs this season.
But he quickly learned that his defensive game had to be elevated if he were to see the kind of playing time or make the kind of impact he was looking to this season.
“From the first day I came here, that was our main focus, defense,” Kanter told NBC Sports Boston. “Everybody, the team, the organization, they knew I could post up and score the ball, rebound. But for us to get to the next level, defense … that’s my main focus. With Brad’s system, and if you play with players like this, the game becomes so much easier defensively.”
And the results are undeniable, both in terms of the team’s success and Kanter’s role with his play on the defensive end of the floor.
This season, Kanter has a defensive rating of 99.5. Only once in his previous eight seasons (2002-2003, 98.0) has Kanter had a better defensive rating than that.
In Boston’s past 10 games, Kanter’s defensive rating of 96.8 is tops among all NBA centers who logged at least 21 minutes per game in that span.
There’s no denying Kanter’s defense, once considered his greatest weakness, has been significantly better than most anticipated thus far this season.
“The biggest part, you have to keep the ball in front of you, you have to play with a physical presence,” Stevens said. “You have to trust the people behind you are going to honor the coverage calls and you’re gonna have to execute it hard every time. Everybody is expected to do that, whether their reputation before they got here says they were Gary Payton or not. So, that’s just part of being here, part of the expectation.”
Jaylen Brown added, “Coming here to Boston, Brad hangs his hat on defense. That’s our selling card for this team, this organization. So it’s mandatory. Other teams, I don’t know what their calling card is or what their organization is about, but the Celtics, Boston, it’s something that’s important, an emphasis here.”
Because of that defensive blueprint from the outset, there is both internal and external pressure to get right defensively or you’ll find yourself right next to Stevens and the rest of the coaching staff on the bench.
When the team has video sessions reviewing games, the last thing any of the players want to see is the video stop on a play or series of plays in which they did not do their job defensively.
“You don’t want to be that one,” said Celtics defensive ace Marcus Smart.
And while Kanter will readily admit that he still has plenty of room to grow defensively, he has done a better-than-expected job at that end of the floor, which has allowed Stevens and company to play him consistent minutes against teams with bullish bigs like Joel Embiid of Philadelphia and Nikola Jokic of Denver, as well as against smaller big men akin to power forwards.
Kanter knows that his job is to defend, as best he can, whoever he’s assigned to on the floor as well as provide help-side defense when needed.
You can count Brown among those not surprised at how quickly Kanter has found his niche on defense.
“Enes is a tough-minded person, has a tremendous spirit, tremendous fight about him,” Brown said. “If you ask him to do something, he’ll get it done.”
As far as his defense, Brown added, “He’s got some improvement to do, but we all do so...We have to keep going. That’s it.”
Don't miss Marcus Smart Day and NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Spurs, which tips off Wednesday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Scal have the call at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.