Celtics coach Brad Stevens attributes the success to the players. The players credit the coach. Whatever the reason, the Celtics have played like a force to be reckoned with lately.
“Coach Stevens,” Brandon Bass told reporters in New York after the Celtics’ 114-73 beatdown of the Knicks, “it’s him.”
Every player has more or less echoed Bass’ sentiments lately, and it’s not hard to see why. Despite having a size disadvantage against just about every opponent and a talent shortage on paper, the Celtics have won three games in a row and six of their last eight. Whereas breaking the 100-point barrier in three straight games might suggest the offense is clicking, the Celtics have actually been carrying the load at the defensive end.
For the second time in as many games, the Celtics sprinted out to big lead early against an opponent that appeared to be turning a corner. The Nuggets had won seven out of eight before falling behind 14-0 in the opening minutes on Friday, and the Knicks came in with a modest two-game win streak before watching the Celtics open up on an 18-1 run on Sunday.
The difference came in the second half. The Nuggets responded to a 20-point halftime deficit by outscoring the Celtics 33-23 in the third quarter and pulled within three points before the Celtics, with a boost from Kris Humphries, pulled themselves together. On Sunday, things got much, much worse for the Knicks after the break, when a 27-point Celtics lead grew to 43 points. The Celtics did not allow the Knicks did not shoot better than 47 percent in any quarter and New York never got closer than 34 points in the fourth quarter.
Still, Stevens isn’t singing the praises of his work just yet.
“They also didn’t hold the Nuggets scoreless for the first six minutes of that second half,” Stevens told reporters. “I think the biggest thing [Sunday] was coming out after halftime and keeping it going. That’s hard to do. That’s really hard to do. These guys came out, they were in a stance, they were communicating.”
There is evidence that the first and second units are finding their respective identifies. The bench might have actually found its identity first, by pushing the pace and — when successful — minimizing turnovers. Now the starters have found their identity at the defensive end. In 154 minutes of action, the current starting lineup of Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford and Bass is holding opponents to 92.0 points per 100 possessions for a net rating of plus-12.2 points per 100 possessions. That defensive rating is just 4/10 of a point off the Pacers’ league-leading 91.6 pace.
As the players’ familiarity with each other grows, Stevens said defensive efforts like Sunday’s can become more frequent. It makes sense that a team with three new starters and five new rotation players would take some time to work out the kinks. With each passing game, the Celtics are looking more like a cohesive unit and not just a group of players trying to figure out their roles.
“I think they’re getting to know each other better, so the communication’s enhanced,” Stevens said. “Sometimes, when you’re in a new system, you don’t want to say anything because you don’t want to be wrong, and then when you don’t know each other, you say less, so then you’re playing and nobody’s talking. We’ve gotten better at communicating, better at covering for one another, but we still have a long way to go.”