Despite their Eastern Conference-leading 35-14 record, the Boston Celtics have fallen back to (round) Earth after a scorching start to the year. After losing four of their last five games, some might believe the opening-night injury to Gordon Hayward is catching up to them.
But make no mistake, this team is very good—ahead of schedule even. Saturday night's game against the Golden State Warriors should be the most telling indicator of their progress to date.
Last summer, after the Celtics posted the seventh-best net rating and reached the conference finals, general manager and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge traded away two valuable three-and-D wings in Avery Bradley (to Detroit) and Jae Crowder (to Cleveland), as well as an MVP candidate in Isaiah Thomas (Cleveland).
But they aren't just a better team this season; their future is brighter, too. And last summer's moves continue to look better as the flames in Cleveland grow by the day.
The goal of this rebuilding project was to replicate the modern style and success of the Warriors, and now the Celtics feature an array of rangy defenders along the perimeter who can match Golden State's switchability.
"Obviously their defense is No. 1 in the league," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr pointed out Friday. "They put a lot of pressure on the ball. They've got a lot of guys that can switch. They've done a good job filling that roster with versatile wings: [Jaylen] Brown, [Jayson] Tatum, Hayward when he's healthy and [Marcus] Morris. And Kyrie is spectacular. We know him awfully well from a different uniform. But they're really well-coached, and they play great defensively."
Switching around the perimeter is a necessity in the NBA, and it's even more important against the Warriors' many weapons. Kevin Durant acknowledged that the Celtics' switches can throw Golden State out of its rhythm, but cautioned not to forget about the potency of those Warriors threats.
"It takes you out of your offense," Durant said. "But we've got guys that can score. I don't think teams want to switch everything with us, especially when you have so many little guards—you don't want to switch little guards onto Klay [Thompson] or myself. Or have bigs on Steph [Curry] out on the perimeter or Draymond [Green] in the post. So we have guys that can exploit some matchups, but that can bog us down a little bit and make us stagnant."
"Hell yeah, they've changed. Kyrie is a top-three most skilled player in the league, in my opinion. One of the most skilled players to ever play. So, hell yeah, they've changed. They upgraded at the position of point guard. Obviously what they had last year, they had a guy that was scoring a lot for them in Isaiah, but now you've got Jayson Tatum coming in there. Kyrie could easily average 30 if he wanted to, but you've got guys like Tatum playing well. Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart.
"So yeah, with Kyrie coming in, who is an all-world talent, and on top of that the young guys have gotten better over the year as well, it's a good mixture of vets and young players that they have."
Similar to the way Golden State uses Draymond Green, the Celtics employ a playmaking, defensive big man in Al Horford, who facilitates a large part of the offense.
"Horford can extend out to the three-point line. He's a terrific passer and screener," Kerr said. "They're very difficult to cover because they cover so much ground. They shoot a lot of three-pointers, they get a lot of offensive boards and they run a lot of good stuff, so they make you work defensively."
Horford is an underrated asset. Irving's isolation scoring is the engine of the offense, but Horford's playmaking and floor-spacing are the oil that keeps it running. On top of that, Boston has set the bar in terms of acquiring players who can defend multiple positions. This combination can give anyone, including Golden State, problems.
"They're just aggressive," Durant explained. "They jump the passing lanes. Brown is very, very aggressive at challenging shots and getting steals. I think we can offset that by just being patient and running our stuff. We're getting used to teams overplaying a lot and being super physical. We try to offset that by cutting backdoor, making hard cuts, fighting through the physicality to get to the free-throw line and keep running our stuff."
Durant seemed confident that the Warriors can score with the best of them, but in their first meeting this season—a 92-88 Celtics win—Boston's formula gave them trouble. The Celtics held Golden State to its third-lowest offensive rating and second-lowest true shooting percentage of the season.
The Warriors felt they were thrown off their game more because of the 38 free-throw attempts than the Celtics defense.
"We can't foul as much," Durant said. "We put them on the foul line a lot last game, I think they had close to 40 free throws. We gotta play without fouling, we gotta play without reaching. We want to be aggressive, but we want to make sure we're not putting teams in the bonus early—that kind of takes our momentum away from us. So with them being on the line so much, I think that slowed us down a little bit."
Ultimately, it doesn't seem like the Warriors are too afraid of anyone. They've earned that. But the Celtics have modeled their team after Golden State—and in order to beat Golden State—and so far it's working. At this point, that's all the drama we need.