I'm just going to put this right here:
Damian Lillard: "They got after us. I think it's that simple."— Jay King (@ByJayKing) March 3, 2016
That's from Damian Lillard. The Damian Lillard that's been tearing up the league. The Damian Lillard who, along with C.J. McCollum, has been averaging a combined 47 points since January 9th as a pair. They've propelled Portland to an 18-5 record during that stretch and made the Blazers one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
Points came too easy for Portland in the first half. The Blazers' dynamic duo had 27 points at halftime on 10-of-17 shooting and the Blazers went into halftime with 55 points on 46.3% shooting. The Blazers backcourt isn't exactly the Splash Brothers ("Rainmakers" is such a cool nickname given by Tommy last night), but they'll pull from any spot on the floor with very little space. The Celtics weren't fighting through screens and were getting beat on back doors, and that lead to a bunch of easy looks.
The third quarter was a different story. The Celtics forced 14 Blazers turnovers for 12 points, but it was their constant ball pressure in the backcourt that disrupted Portland's offense, leading to bad shots from their second and third options. Portland's head coach noticed the extra effort on D:
"Their guards really do a good job of pressure. They all do," said Portland coach Terry Stotts, whose team had won 18 of previous 22 games. "They do a good job of pressuring catches, pushing out catches, getting into guys, aggressive on the ball, just disrupting the offense."
They completely disrupted Lillard and McCollum, who, after their hot start, combined to shoot 2-for-12 from the field during the third quarter.
Lillard and McCollum singled out Avery Bradley, but it was a team effort in that third quarter when the Blazers only put up 12 points, hitting only 5 shots on 21 FGA's.
Check out the immediate cover from Bradley on Lillard. As soon as Lillard crosses half court, Bradley's on him right away. That early in the shot clock, it's token pressure, but it's a tone-setter for the second half. Next, there's the ball denial from Isaiah Thomas on McCollum. Preventing the dribble hand-off takes precious seconds off of the shot clock and keeps the ball in the hands of the Blazers' bigs. Portland gets a good look in the corner and the offensive rebound, but Jared Sullinger cleans it up with the good block on Noah Vonleh.
Another example of solid ball denial. Bradley won't let Lillard touch the ball, and even though McCollum gets freed up from Thomas, he's met by Sullinger and Amir Johnson at the rim. Sully and Amir haven't exactly served as elite shot-blocking rim protectors, but they have been very good space protectors and shot changers.
This is Celtics' defense at its finest. There's no steal or block, but the team gets total containment of the Blazers' offense. They prevent penetration and force a three from Meyers Leonard.
Just check out how hard AB works off the ball to keep the ball out of Lillard's hands. Despite two down-screens from Leonard and Ed Davis, Bradley is right there. His effort short-circuits Portland's initial read, and McCollum is forced to put up a wild shot into traffic.
With the league trending to more perimeter play because of the lack of hand-checking rules, players like Lillard, McCollum, and Steph Curry are going to be to the stars of the NBA. Danny Ainge planned for this trend and stocked his roster with defenders. In Boston's double-overtime loss to the Warriors, the Celtics held Curry to 9-for-27 shooting with 8 turnovers. That's arguably one of Steph's worse games of the year.
There was a lot of talk last night about chips on shoulders and the monotonous drone of the "lack of a superstar" argument against this team, but time and time again, the Celtics have tuned out that noise by shutting down the opposing team's star. Just ask Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Stars win championships, but so does defense. With the way the Celtics have been turning teams over and scoring in transition, they've somewhat negated the need for a star (even though Isaiah Thomas is one) and shown that their recent re-commitment to defense (94.3 defensive rating during the current four-game home stand) could be a tough out in the playoffs.