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In showdown between the NBA’s best offenses, Celtics flex their improved defense

Boston’s defense is starting to match its historic offense.

Boston Celtics v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Heading into a match up with the then Eastern and Western Conference leaders (Phoenix dropped down to #2 with the loss behind the red-hot New Orleans Pelicans), the game also pitted the two top offenses in the league. Boston is still at a historic pace with a 119.9 offensive rating with Phoenix trailing behind at 116.3. And with point god Chris Paul returning after missing a month with a heel injury and Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton playing some of the best basketball of their careers over Phoenix’s last 7-2 stretch, everybody expected an offensive explosion in front of a nationally televised game.

The Celtics would go on to score 125 points, racking up 29 assists and hitting a humble 16-of-45 from behind the arc in the win. The Suns, on the other hand, put up just 98 with eighteen turnovers.

“Right now, I think we’re getting back to ourselves, locking down on the defensive side of things, trying to keep teams to a 100 or so, not let people get comfortable,” Jaylen Brown said after the game.

“That’s what we hung our hat on last year and this year, we got off to a slow start on defense and our offense kind of carried us and now, it seems like we’re playing a little bit balanced right now.”

Last season, the Celtics were stifling after the new year. In 46 games, Boston gave up just 105.2 points per 100 possessions en route to a 34-12 record to close out the regular season. This season, they’re just 9th in defensive rating at 110.8, but there are signs of improvement.

Over the first 13 games, they averaged 112.8 and were largely buoyed by their astronomical offense. In their last 13 games however, that number has shrunk to 108.7. In the first three games of this six-game road trip, they held Brooklyn, Toronto, and Phoenix to 92, 110, and 98 respectively.

In a game that didn’t feature two All-Defensive Teamers Al Horford and Robert Williams, the Celtics were able to hold the Suns to under 40% shooting on the night. That hasn’t happened all year.

Booker, who is averaging a career-high 27.9 points a game, hit just six of his seventeen shots after being hounded by a plethora of plus-perimeter defenders in Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White, and Grant Williams. Ayton had scored in double figures in twelve of his last thirteen games. Defended by Boston’s second and third string centers Blake Griffin and Luke Kornet, he managed just eight points and coughed up the ball four times.

Both Brown and Tatum reiterated that this was just one win in an 82-game season and their focus is on Golden State this Saturday. Head coach Joe Mazzulla echoed those sentiments saying, “it’s understanding what we’re doing well right now and what we can do better. We’ve had a couple of games like this, but our guys have played hard no matter what. You just have to constantly focus on the details. What are we doing well, what are not. We gave up a lot of shots wide open tonight. If those had went in, it could have been a different game.”

In a 27-point blowout — and it wasn’t even that close — the Celtics continue to find ways to get better and for those fans waiting for last year’s defense to return, we’ve seen it turn a corner over the last home stand and now to start this road trip.

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