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Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: Celtics are locking teams down

Marcus Smart, Russell Westbrook

Marcus Smart, Russell Westbrook


The NBA season is starting to develop a rhythm, and while it’s too early to try to draw much out of the statistics (we need to get to 20 games before we draw any serious conclusions) some patterns are emerging, such as the Boston defense. We’ll talk about a couple of those in our five things you need to know from around the NBA on Sunday:
1) Boston is locking teams down. Last season, Boston was an okay defensive team, 12th in the league, and that was enough to get them into the postseason. This season coach Brad Stevens has the Celtics locking teams down early — they are fourth in the NBA in defense, allowing just 94.4 points per 100 possessions (that’s 7.4 per 100 better than last season). Two key areas are driving this. The first is turnovers — Boston is forcing turnovers on 19.4 percent of opponent possessions, the highest rate in the NBA. Sunday against Oklahoma City, Boston forced 18 turnovers and that was one of the keys to a quality win for the Celtics. Jae Crowder leads the NBA in steals (which is stunning). I’m not sold Boston can maintain this pace of turnovers, but they likely remain near the top of the league. The other area is simply forcing other teams to miss shots — opponents have an eFG% of 46.5 percent against the Celtics, fifth in the NBA. Maybe the best illustration of that Sunday was Marcus Smart going up against the powerhouse that is Russell Westbrook — while Westbrook had 27 points, he was 5-of-20 shooting (Smart had 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting). Maybe the highest compliment to Smart’s play was how Westbrook played it down postgame.

Holding Westbrook in relative check was not all Smart, it was a team effort, but that is what Boston has been doing all season and why they again look like a team headed toward the playoffs in the East.

2) Karl-Anthony Towns went head-to-head with Marc Gasol and held his own. The crazy thing — Towns turned 20 on Sunday. Even at that age Towns went head-to-head with one of the best centers in the game in the younger of the Gasol brothers and completely held his own — Towns had 14 points and nine rebounds. Sure, Gasol put up numbers (16 points, seven rebounds) and his wet midrange jumper in the second half was key to the Grizzlies win, but if you’re a Timberwolves fan you have to be excited with what you see. Towns has been the best rookie in the NBA so far this young season (he’s averaging 15.5 points and 10.2 boards a game).

3) Don’t sleep on Charlotte. The Hornets handled the Trail Blazers fairly easily at home on Sunday, and while it’s certainly early it looks like this is a team that will be in the mix to return to the playoffs this season. What they are doing is not beating themselves — they don’t turn the ball over, and they are focused on grabbing defensive boards (best rate in the NBA so far) so the opponent doesn’t get a second chance. Charlotte has the seventh best offense in the NBA this young season, Jeremy Lamb has played well of late (he’s looking like a guy who deserved that extension), Jeremy Lin has fit well as a sixth man (11.5 points a game, a PER of 18.3) and this is a team that is difficult to beat. If you are looking ahead on your team’s schedule and think “Charlotte, that’s an easy win” you will be in for a rude awakening.

4) DeMarcus Cousins is beasting. Over his last three games, Cousins is averaging 36.3 points and 10.7 rebounds a game, while shooting 51.4 percent. He dropped 36 and 10 on Toronto and they had no answer — Cousins was central to a win the Kings needed before a five-game road trip opens.

5) Anthony vs. Anthony: Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis put on a show at MSG. It was a noon tip at Madison Square Garden Sunday — an early start in a city with great nightlife means a sloppy game (call it the J.R. Smith memorial issue). Despite that, Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis put on a show for the fans (and those fans left happy after seeing a Knicks win).