BOSTON -- The Celtics had a hysteria inducing 72-point first half in their 118-98 massacre of the Washington Wizards on Friday night at TD Garden. But as dazzling as the offense was, the team's stellar defense can't be overlooked for causing turnovers that created easy transition opportunities.
Boston's perimeter defenders suffocated Washington's point guards John Wall and Ramon Sessions, preventing lane penetration, which threw their offense out of rhythm.
The entire team also played with active hands by keeping their limbs in passing lanes to force deflections, as they accumulated 18 steals, a season-high.
Evan Turner was asked after the game how they managed to rack up so many steals.
"We have some thirsty ass guards," Turner said. "Those dudes -- Avery [Bradley], [Marcus] Smart, Jae [Crowder] -- that's what they excel at: Defense. And obviously we can get stops in bundles. Obviously when you rotate and do your job defensively it makes it more easier for you to get steals if you're in the right place, right time."
Crowder racked up five steals. Turner himself had three. Bradley had two. And they didn't even have Smart, who missed his second-consecutive game with a sprained toe.
"Yeah, we've been pretty good at that the whole time. So far we haven't been perfect, but that's kind of what we've hung our hat on," said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens when asked about the team's aggression on defense. "And we've talked about it, even last year, that that had to be a strength of our team, or else our team wasn't going to be very good."
After Friday's win, the Celtics lead the NBA with 11.2 steals per 100 possessions. They are sixth with a 95.2 Defensive Rating, which is 5.1 points better than their rating after last year's All-Star break.
"We've changed a few things defensively, not necessarily to turn people over," Stevens later added. "But to utilize our versatility as far as the quickness of our backcourt players. We've had some switches here and there."
So far, the Celtics have sustained their defense, but the offense has been flat.
Entering Friday, Boston had the 24th ranked offense in the NBA, scoring 95.7 points per 100 possessions. They also had by far the league's worst first quarter offense, scoring a mere 72.3 points per 100 possessions.
But, largely due to some stellar defense, the Celtics exploded for 40 points in the first quarter, or 137.6 points per 100 possessions -- a massive 65.3-point improvement over their previous games.
Jared Sullinger was another reason for Boston's early success, scoring 11 of his 21 points in the first quarter. Sullinger was draining threes and finishing inside, but a spectacular assist was his highlight of the night.
In the third quarter, Sullinger dove to the floor to grab a rebound, which exemplified the level of intensity the Celtics want to see from him on a more consistent basis. Still on the ground, Sullinger rolled over and fired an accurate two-handed outlet pass to Isaiah Thomas, who was sprinting ahead in transition.
"Honestly, as I was rolling over like a bear, I just kinda seen this little guy open around the free throw line," Sullinger joked after the game. "And luckily that roll kinda carried the momentum of the ball and it went flying and Isaiah [Thomas] laid it up."
Kelly Olynyk also had his best game of the season, with 19 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals.
"I just thought he was aggressive right out of the game," Stevens said of Olynyk's performance. "Even on the first one or two possessions he drove ball and kicked it across the floor. I thought it was a move with authority, instead of a move with hesitancy. I think that the more he can do that, the better he is. He's a very talented player, we've talked about that, and we need him to shoot the ball well for us to be a good team."
Olynyk was just 1-of-10 on three-point attempts prior to Friday's game, but drained 3-of-5, including one where he used a move you don't see 7-footers utilize very often.
Normally when Olynyk pump-fakes, he drives to the rim to score or to pass. But this is one of the first times he's used a "side dribble" to shimmy over to attempt a three.
It was an impressive display by Olynyk, and something that could become a lethal weapon for him moving forward.
Overall, though, the Celtics have to be encouraged by how they played using some smaller, skilled units, including the combo of Sullinger and Olynyk. This was the team's calling card going forward, despite the big man depth on the roster.
"The biggest thing going into this game I just felt like we needed to play skilled, because I thought would pressure us quite a bit," Stevens said. "So if we weren't able to stretch the defense with one of our bigs, make threes, or at least be a threat at three, I thought we were gonna be in trouble."
Brad Stevens' concerns were quickly put to rest, as it was the Wizards who were in trouble, due to a lockdown defensive effort, and a stretched floor on offense.