BOSTON — Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault sat in the same room Michael Malone did before his Nuggets faced the Celtics on Friday and repeated Malone’s message. A seemingly struggling Boston defensive unit could still pose challenges when they’re set, so Denver and Oklahoma City would need to beat the Celtics up the floor.
“They don’t (switch) with every guy. They play coverage with a lot of their bigs, too,” Daigneault said. “A lot of it, for us, is pace up the floor, pace in the half court, regardless of coverage, and so that’ll be important again tonight, I think that’s been a strength of ours the past few games and so we’ve got to carry that over against, obviously, a great defense.”
The Celtics’ defense didn’t play great for much of their wins over both teams, one of the league’s top offenses in Denver and a scorching hot one in OKC in recent weeks. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tortured Jaylen Brown and company with straight-line drives. Back cuts beat the front court through early offense. Thunder transition opportunities came early and often, but timely Celtics stops and an even better transition game prevailed. Boston’s offense persevered and the win streak continued — even while shooting 27% from three on Monday.
The problem wasn’t that Oklahoma City couldn’t generate some offense on the run; they scored 16 points off turnovers and 17 in transition. The Thunder couldn’t do it at as nearly of a high level as the Celtics did. Boston generated 15 steals, the fifth most by any team this season, and turned them into 24 fast break points. Jayson Tatum — who started the season scoring a perfect 2.00 points per possession in transition through three games — is now averaging an elite 1.43 PPP on a 69.3 eFG%. Boston ranks No. 6 in transition offense (1.19 PPP).
“Easy buckets,” Tatum said. “That’s part of the evolution of being a better scorer, getting to the free throw line, obviously being the focal point of the other team’s defense, drawing a lot of attention. Obviously, there’s going to be other times you have to take and make tough shots, but throughout the flow of the game, corner three-point shots, offensive rebounds, tip-ins, two fast break points, buckets — those things add up and get you in a rhythm for later in the game.”
While the Celtics ramped up toward their best possessions of the game, their rapid-fire passing shined as the Thunder’s ball control deteriorated. Brown and Tatum connected on one of numerous outlet passes that soared over the Thunder’s defense.
Both players poked loose passes into transition themselves as a turnover parade began for Oklahoma City after halftime. Payton Pritchard checked in and took advantage of the Thunder prioritizing breakouts by crashing the glass, then closed the third quarter helping force a pair of steals on Gilgeous-Alexander. Oklahoma City turned the ball over seven times in the fourth quarter.
“Ever since I’ve been young, everybody’s told me to get back,” Pritchard said. “But I’ve always known how to read it off the rim, so I just linger, and I never worry about getting back, because I always just sprint back and pick up the ball. I’m not worried about somebody beating me off that.”
Boston forced the fewest turnovers in the NBA through 15 games, 12.6 per game, making Monday an aberration, but they keep the game in the half court, allowing only 10.9 fast break points each night (3rd). The Celtics also achieved a top-10 defensive rebounding percentage (72.8) to start the season, making it hard for teams to find ways to circumvent their #1 offense.
They collapsed defensively to cut off Oklahoma City’s offensive rebounding after Aaron Wiggins and Aleksej Pokuševski threw down put back dunks early. Joe Mazzulla also noticed his team adjust their defensive posture as the game sped up.
“They came up with that, having the pick-up points higher,” Mazzulla said. “The ball pressure being higher and then having the late help once they get below the free throw line. The guys came up with that and they executed it well.”
If the Celtics could outpace the Nuggets, which they did 18-11 in fast break scoring on Friday, playing in transition for 9.1% of the game compared to Denver’s 4.5%, they’ll be able to run with any team in the NBA. They currently rank 12th with 126.2 points per 100 possessions in transition this season, most of that stemming from how quickly they get the ball up the floor after rebounds rather than piling up steals like they did on Monday. Denver ranks #1, but Malone felt like his team eased into the game while Boston played with more urgency.
Smart and Al Horford, two of the better outlet passers in the NBA, led the charge and are two of the three Celtics leaders in total passes made next to Tatum. Tatum, Brown and Smart, in turn, lead Boston in passes received, creating a straight path toward the rim for the team’s best players in transition.
Even when they’re unsuccessful, they keep the pressure flowing up the floor and once again had the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic looking tired and missing crucial minutes due to fouling on the defensive end. Boston’s opponents commit 20.7 fouls per game (15th).
And pace doesn’t just come in the fast break, the Celtics move and thrive in the half court, too. They’re five points per 100 possessions more efficient than #2 Dallas.
“They share the ball, 30 assists, only seven turnovers, that’s a great starting place,” Malone said. “The three-point line, and they’re getting it from so many people. You have two great one-on-one players, who can get their shot whenever they want, create separation for the three, get to the basket to finish and also get to the foul line, I mean Tatum got there 11 times tonight. Now, you put shooting around them ... they run some really unique offense, a lot of small smalls and a lot of cutting, they do a really good job of off-ball movement, create confusion and they have a really nice rhythm about it. To stop them, to beat them, you have to disrupt their rhythm.”