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Defense is the key to Boston’s back-to-back blowouts

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Sometimes, hustle wins out over talent. Boston’s record doesn’t let them stand out from the pack anymore, but their elite defense can still separate them from everyone else.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve said this a lot but I’ll say it again: you can tell which way a Celtics game is going based on how aggressively they pressure the ball in the first few minutes of a game. Boston swarmed Memphis all game and took a 30+ point lead for the second straight game. And every time I bring it up, I am always reminded that athletes are human and it’s not always as simple as “flipping a switch.”

From Brad’s post-game presser:

“I’ve said this all year, if they catch it on the block without any resistance, or they catch it inside the three or outside the three-point line without any resistance, then we’re in trouble. We’re not going to be able to impact them at the rim the way we want to.”

And:

I’m not entirely sure if Brad is implying the rim defense is bad if the ball gets down low too frequently, because I might disagree if that’s the case. What I do agree with is how the Celtics are nearly unbeatable when they aggressively defend the ball to start games.

Before last night, Dillon Brooks was averaging 21.4 points over his last nine games and 45% three point shooting on eight attempts per game. Memphis was 7-2 in that span against mostly mediocre competition, although they did drop 140 points in a rout of the LA Clippers to start a seven-game winning streak that included a victory against Houston as well. If Brooks played for Boston, we’d be gassing him up as a future All-Star already.

Every run ends eventually, and Brooks was held to six points against Boston on 1-for-6 shooting. Marcus Smart does a lot that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, although maybe it should:

The most important detail here is the clock. It’s less than four minutes into the game. Boston is always voracious for stops late in games. Take the loss to Milwaukee for example - a full game played like the last two minutes would have been a blowout win for Boston as well. It’s not just about throwing the first punch, but who punched the hardest. The Celtics trailed the Lakers 8-0 before you could even blink, but it was the Lakers who were playing on their back foot for most of the game.

The common theme between the last two games is that the opposing offense was never comfortable with Boston swarming them from the tip. The Celtics are sixth in the league in deflections (16.8 per game), although it’s worth noting the top seven are all within 0.6 of each other (Chicago averages 17.3 per game, Golden State 16.7). They’re tied for seventh in loose balls recovered (8.0) with the Lakers, Bucks and Nets, who are all, again, 0.6 behind the leader (Houston with 8.6). They rank sixth in charges drawn with 0.88. Washington leads the league with 1.42.

The Celtics are everywhere. They’re not as disruptive as the Raptors, but they consistently rank highly in hustle stats more than almost any other team. It’s probably the most distinctive thing about them besides having three guys averaging 20+ points per game.

Their top-five defense also comes without a marquee center, which has somehow become a topic of controversy. Giving up the fourth-least points in the paint seems pretty uncontroversial to me. Daniel Theis having more blocks than all but 16 other players is fine by me as well. Let me put it this way: a small upgrade at center to make an attempt at stopping Joel Embiid is like buying a fly swatter to chase a bear out of your back yard. Until I see consistent issues in the paint for Boston, I’m not buying any narrative that it’s a position of need.

This team definitely has an identity. The question is whether or not they can live up to it in games that seem like they don’t matter.