Apparently, the Boston Celtics can put it all together.
With Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and others waiting to light up scoreboards on any given night, points can come from myriad directions. But prior to Thursday night's 117-113 victory over the no-longer-undefeated Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics' preventing prowess had typically taken center stage.
You know, the type of preventing prowess that lets Irving, still not a consistently suffocating stalwart, provide an inspired performance. Not only did the point guard explode for 28 points and seven assists, but he also made arguably the play of the night with this crucial late-game stop against Khris Middleton:
Heading into the nationally televised clash, the Celtics were pacing the NBA in defensive rating by allowing a minuscule 96.2 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks entered the affair in second place (98.2), while no other squad landed in double digits (the No. 3 Memphis Grizzlies cede 101.5 points per 100 possessions).
That's not a mirage.
If the Celtics didn't make that clear by holding the Association's sixth-ranked offense to a meager 16 points in the opening quarter, they certainly affirmed their status as immovable objects by continuing to make life difficult throughout the evening. Don't be fooled by the 113 points allowed in today's pace-happy, three-heavy style. Giannis Antetokounmpo went for 33 points on 13-of-22 shooting from the field, but Boston forced him into difficult attempts from start to finish, often in heavy congestion around the basket
Per Nate Duncan, the team's defensive rating on the night, even against such a high-powered attack and a top award candidate, stood at a respectable 109.7.
Hayward looked sprier than in previous outings, sliding his feet and absorbing contact well. Better still, he managed to turn impressive defensive plays into production on the other end, as was the case with this block on Malcolm Brogdon:
But go back and watch that play again. Pause the clip right before Hayward turns his swat on, and you'll notice the other four men in white uniforms positioning themselves perfectly. Everyone is prepared to cut off kick-out passes and recover to shooters, while Horford is playing safety in the middle, ready to help on either the perimeter or the interior.
It's that cohesion that helps the C's thrive, and their effectiveness will only increase if Hayward morphs back into the defensive asset he'd become during the later stages of his Utah Jazz tenure. Lest we forget, this shutdown of a talented offense came with Jaylen Brown sitting out, depriving head coach Brad Stevens of one more switchable wing defender typically at his disposal.
Cohesion is key for this team because it feeds into the overwhelming amount of discipline—a staple in any Stevens system. You'll rarely catch someone out of position, which helps everyone contest shots all over the half-court set. And that, in turn, allows Boston to depress opponents' shooting percentages as well as anyone (No. 2 in opponents' effective field-goal percentage) while simultaneously keeping its fouls in check (No. 6 in opponents' free-throw rate).
Even with the run-and-gun stylings of the modern NBA, the Celtics have been able to force opponents into slower sets. The fearsome defense attempts to compel foes into mistakes without unnecessarily gambling for turnover opportunities. Thursday night, that allowed the Celtics to contain the potent Bucks—a legitimate, not the least bit fluky threat to emerge from the East—even while sending them to the free-throw line (30 attempts) a bit more than usual.
But that foul-happy nature wasn't all that changed as Boston pushed its record to 6-2.
Prior to this four-point victory, the Celtics offense had struggled immensely. Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes were the only rotation members with true shooting percentages higher than the league-average mark, while just Baynes and Irving had earned positive scores in offensive box plus/minus. The team as a whole was producing a meager 100.8 points per 100 possessions, which placed it ahead of only the Atlanta Hawks (100.1) and Orlando Magic (99.4).
That narrative is suddenly shifting after an unmitigated explosion from beyond the arc.
Sure, the lob plays are fun:
So too are the shot-making clinics from Irving:
But this was about balanced offense and shooting—necessary traits when trying to stave off Milwaukee's fervent comeback attempts late in the second half. Irving (28), Hayward (18), Horford (18), Morris (17), Tatum (10) and Semi Ojeleye (10) all finished in double figures, and the team as a whole put on a trey-drilling show.
Ball movement reigned supreme on some long balls during a night that featured 30 assists on 41 made shots:
On a few others, men simply filled the right lanes or created their own looks with aplomb. But everything worked, culminating in a 24-of-55 showing from past the rainbow that goes down as the most staggering three-point performance in the franchise's storied history.
That's in no way hyperbolic:
- Nov. 1, 2018: 24-of-55
- Jan. 6, 2017: 19-of-40
- Jan. 26, 2018: 19-of-50
- Jan. 7, 2017: 18-of-36
- Jan. 3, 2003 and Jan. 3, 2017: 17-of-31
This was the team everyone should fear.
Milwaukee is no pushover, and the Bucks largely played well throughout their first defeat on the 2018-19 calendar. Donte DiVincenzo had strong moments during the first half, Antetokounmpo continued to justify his status as a leading MVP candidate and the Bledsoe-Brogdon backcourt found some success.
But good luck beating the Celtics when they're fully engaged on both ends of the floor.
Though Boston entered the night with a 5-2 record, it hadn't scored more than 109 points in any contest. Its top offensive rating in a single affair? A decent 108.0 against the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 27 that, throughout the league, would rank as the 128th-best offensive performance during the young campaign.
So much for that.
The Celtics won't replicate their three-point activities every time they hit the parquet floors of the TD Garden, but this showing could give them the confidence necessary to finally find a rhythm. And when that happens against a team that isn't playing phenomenal basketball with a goose egg in the loss column, the margin of victory should only swell.
After all, that defense isn't going anywhere.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.