OKLAHOMA CITY – While the rest of the NBA is struggling to stop the ball, the Boston Celtics are yet again sitting atop the league in defensive rating.
Through four games, the C’s have accrued a defensive rating of 97.3, which is tied with the Denver Nuggets for the best mark in the NBA. No other team has a defensive rating lower than 101.5.
The reason for the wide gap is that defenses outside of Boston and Denver are struggling to amend to the league’s new emphasis on freedom of movement. Referees have been instructed to emphasize rules that disallow arm wraps, grabbing and dislodging of offensive players.
As a result, offensive players have been allowed to roam free off the ball. If defensive players interrupt that movement, a whistle will be blown.
Nearly every team in the league is still trying to figure out how to defend amid these rules. The league’s average pace is up to 101.5 this season compared to 97.3 last season, and scoring average is up to 112.4 from 106.3.
The Celtics and the Nuggets, seemingly, are the only teams that have figured out how to defend around the rules.
“Our guys have adjusted in three weeks,” Brad Stevens said Thursday morning while discussing the topic.
Still, the C’s don’t exactly feel comfortable defending around the rules just yet. Al Horford discussed ahead of Thursday’s shootaround the challenges he faces as a defensive-minded big man.
“it really challenges you,” he said at Thursday morning’s shootaround. “I remember going into the first game of the season and I’m like, ‘How am I going to guard this, or do that?’ You’re worried about that stuff.
“When a guy is cutting, you can’t touch him. So many of the offenses, you play with that pace and those things. You just have to be very conscious that you can’t wrap guys – a lot of little things that you were able to do that you can’t do now.”
These challenges will be particular relevant to the Celtics tonight, as they attempt to contain the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are winless on the season at 0-3, but Russell Westbrook missed two of those games, and there’s no questioning their talent. Boston is well aware of the offensive firepower and speed that Oklahoma City will present tonight.
“You have to handle all their pick-and-rolls,” Stevens said of defending the Thunder. “With Westbrook going downhill, (Dennis) Schroder going downhill, with (Paul) George coming off and shooting… those are really, really hard to guard.”
For most teams nowadays, that trio may be borderline impossible to guard. The rules emphases just make it too difficult.
Boston, however, is different. Defense is at the forefront of the team’s collective mind, which may be one factor in its accelerated adjustment at that end of the court.
“Our emphasis is being a great defensive team, and also trying to be a great offensive team as well,” said Horford. “We know if we defend we have a chance every night.”
Indeed, the Celtics have had a chance to win each of their four games this season. They want to continue that trend tonight in Oklahoma City while riding their league-leading defense.