BOSTON – In the early days of training camp, it was pretty obvious that the Celtics defense had a much more effective, efficient flow in comparison to the offense.
And once they started playing games that mattered, the difference was even more pronounced.
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Boston’s defense is still ahead of the offense, but that gap is quickly closing.
And that makes the Celtics, owners of a league-best 19-4 record after their 108-97 win over Philadelphia on Thursday night, an even more dangerous team going forward.
Against the Sixers, the Celtics shot 50.6 percent from the field, which marked their third consecutive game where they connected on at least 50 percent of their shots. That’s a huge contrast to the first 20 games, which featured not a single game in which the Celtics made at least half of their field-goal attempts.
Boston also made 41.4 percent (12-for-29) of its 3-pointers, which marked the fourth consecutive game where the C’s connected on at least 40 percent of their 3s after doing it only four times through the first 19 games.
And yes, Boston’s defense delivered yet another strong game.
But it is an improving offense that makes an already promising future, look even brighter for the Celtics.
“We were playing the Boston Celtics, the best team in basketball,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown.
Here are five takeaways from the victory:
It didn’t take Irving leaving Cleveland for folks to realize just how lethal a scorer he is in the NBA. Still, the departure has created a slightly different narrative, one that now includes Irving making those around him better. The two-man game that he and Al Horford run together, has created major problems for teams. And as we saw against the Sixers, he has a great feel for when to take advantage of defenses that on a lot of nights, aren’t sure how to defend him. If you double-team or blitz him too soon, he’s capable of finding teammates. And if you don’t provide defensive help, he’ll crush with his near-unstoppable one-on-one moves. “No question,” said Horford. “He forces a couple people and yeah, there are a lot of opportunities that he creates. If teams don’t double him he’ll make them pay.”
If not for Gordon Hayward’s season-ending ankle injury, we might be talking about Morris as a serious candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year. It’s no secret that he sees himself as a starter on this team. But to his credit, his production and impact aren't tied to whether he’s with the first or second unit. “I think that he was the difference for us early in the fourth when we couldn’t really score the ball,” said Horford. “He got us going, he hit some big baskets; it’s his ability to post, his mid-range and also he’s able to shoot the three. He made some timely shots.”
Speaking of Horford, he continues to play at an All-Star level with fewer peaks and valleys statistically this season. He was about as efficient as we’ve seen him this season, tallying 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting to go with eight rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. “Horford probably doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is offensively,” Philadelphia’s J.J. Redick told reporters after the game. “One of the reasons is because of the way he pops and sort of the problems that presents; whether that’s shooting threes, or attacking closeouts, or catching and running into another pick and roll… As good as Kyrie is offensively, it’s almost like Horford is the sort of the hub of everything they do – and because he’s so versatile, it creates all sorts of issues.”
BENCH STAYS POSITIVE
Boston’s reserve unit had varying levels of success in terms of shooting the ball against the Sixers, ranging from Morris and his 17 points, to Semi Ojeleye, who missed his lone field goal attempt. That said, all five players off the Celtics bench – Morris, Ojeleye, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis – had moments of solid play for Boston. In fact, each of them had a positive plus/minus when they were on the floor against the Sixers, ranging from Ojeyle and Theis who were each +1, to Marcus Smart who had a team-best plus/minus of +15.
There has been a lot of talk about how Boston’s rookies have played with a level of maturity that’s well, unusual. Making their play all that more uncommon is that their greatest impact, for the most part, comes on defense. Jayson Tatum has been an impressive offensive force for the Celtics. But his defense has been pretty special, too. In fact, Tatum’s defensive rating of 98.5 is tops among all NBA rookies to log at least 10 minutes per game and appear in at least 10 games this season. He’s not alone when it comes to defensive standouts among Celtics rookies. Theis is third on that list with a 99.5 defensive rating and second-round pick Semi Ojeleye is fifth with a defensive rating of 100.2.