While the Boston Celtics’ 141-103 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers was the culmination of a 48-minute onslaught, its foundation can be traced to a superb first quarter effort. The 38-21 edge was equal parts offense and defense that paved the way for a season-high in points scored and the third-fewest points allowed in a game this season.
After Boston’s second straight loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night, Brad Stevens was blunt with what needed to change for his struggling team to snap a three-game losing streak.
“We’re not going to win a game with the group that we have giving up 122 points,” Stevens said after the 122-110 loss to the Sixers. “Until we’re really committed to (defending), I just don’t see us being sustainably competitive.”
Prior to Sunday’s 141-103 victory over the Cavaliers, Boston’s defense ranked among the bottom-third in the league. Returning to the standard of their top-five mark from last season, though, wasn’t as simple as acknowledging its importance.
The Celtics needed an inspiring effort in the first 12 minutes that would send ripples across the next 36. With that goal in mind, Stevens was no doubt pleased with limiting the Cavs to 6-of-22 shooting in the opening frame and just 2-of-9 from beyond the arc.
Effort is difficult to quantify but can be easily seen. Consider the play below not two minutes into the contest. Kemba Walker slithers around an Andre Drummond screen and beats Collin Sexton to his spot while Marcus Smart stunts off his man to close space at the free throw line. After Sexton passes out to Cedi Osman, Smart recovers to contest the missed 3-point attempt.
With multiple efforts that also forced five turnovers, the Celtics ensured whatever momentum the Cavs were capable of building — lord knows Sexton gave Brooklyn plenty of it — remained stationary.
“Our identity as the Celtics is we hang our hats on being a defensive team,” Jaylen Brown said after the second loss to the Sixers. “We gotta be better and I gotta be better.”
For all their surprising struggles preventing points, the Celtics have had no issues putting them up on the board with a top-10 offense. And yet that identity hasn’t been shaped in the first quarter, where Boston was just outside the bottom-third in first quarter scoring heading into Sunday.
Even worse, they were surrendering the third-most turnovers in the opening quarter. Against a Cavs team that previously held the second-best defense and is still forcing turnovers at a league-best rate — not to mention the absence of Jayson Tatum — Boston’s offense could’ve easily negated the efforts of its defense to turn the game into a slugfest.
Instead, the same concerted effort the Celtics used to maximize their play at the defensive end was also implemented to help put 38 first quarter points on 15-of-25 shooting. Marcus Smart led the way in both scoring and playmaking with 10 points and four assists. Brown followed closely behind with nine points.
The Celtics had no issues keeping the ball out of Cleveland’s hands with just a single turnover compared to nine assists. All that ball movement without many giveaways made Boston a plus-10 in points in the paint through a couple of transition opportunities and well-timed cuts that led to consecutive highlight-worthy passes on the same possession.
The Celtics were a cumulative minus-3 in first quarters in the 14 games before the Cleveland victory, which put them squarely in the middle of the league in that category.
In a game always decided by the final score, more important than how you start is admittedly how you finish. But as we saw in a 38-point blowout, the way one handles the former can significantly influence the necessity of the latter.
Boston won’t always get to joyously ride an early double-digit lead through the remainder of the game just because of a strong first quarter. But this game is a testament to some of the benefits they’ll happily accept when they do.