Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire
Celtics guard Courtney Lee provided defensive intensity Thursday against the Nets.While Brooklyn head coach Avery Johnson could only look on in dismay as the Celtics' defense throttled the Nets in the opening minutes of a 115-85 Boston victory on Thursday, Boston head coach Doc Rivers watched with a look of pure contentment. He had been waiting for this; for the defensive potential of his newly assembled club to finally shine through and set the tone for a dominating victory.
Rivers has been adamant throughout the preseason that wins and losses would not dictate his team's level of growth. Instead, he was looking for signs of cohesion from his players, with and without the ball. Against the Nets reserves on Tuesday, Boston showed flashes of the defense Rivers wanted to see, but Thursday, with Brooklyn's regulars back in the rotation, it manifested itself in the way Rivers knew it could.
"We talked about it, as I told you before the game, we had yet to show up defensively," Rivers told reporters following Thursday's win. "And tonight, that's us. That's our defense. And trying to convince them, with all the scoring we have, if we get stops, we're going to score. We're going to score in transition more, we're going to score in a lot of different ways and you can see that tonight."
Boston quickly upended any plans Brooklyn might have had for a quick start. Playing for just the second time in their brand new billion-dollar arena, the Nets saw three of their first four possessions end in turnovers, with an aggressive Boston defense overplaying entry passes to the wings and the post.
Courtney Lee, arguably Boston's best performer on Thursday, took the ball from Brook Lopez on Brooklyn's first possession, and cruised the other way for an easy layup. Rajon Rondo added a swipe of his own the next time the Nets had the ball, and, two plays later, Kevin Garnett got in on the thievery, with his theft leading to a Paul Pierce dunk in transition. Just over a minute into the game, Boston boasted a 9-0 lead, and refused to look back.
The first quarter saw the Celtics hold the Nets to 3-of-16 shooting and force seven turnovers, which they converted into eight points of their own. Boston held a 27-15 lead at the end of the first frame, and carried a 59-44 advantage into halftime. Though their defense was far from perfect over the middle two quarters, it ultimately helped the C's hold their lead.
Brooklyn made its only run in the third quarter, slicing the lead down to 12 at one point. But after hitting a 3-pointer, Pierce stepped in front of Deron Williams to take a charge, and Rondo responded with a layup to push Boston's lead back to 16. Lee then further derailed the Nets' comeback with a nifty backcourt steal that led to his easiest bucket of the night, giving Boston a 17-point edge.
Lee finished the night with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, but more impressive was his attention on defense. He came through with a game-high four steals, and locked in on Brooklyn's All-Star guard duo of Williams and Joe Johnson. Though he's flip-flopped between the starting lineup and the bench during the preseason, his performance Thursday might have sealed his spot with the first five.
"Courtney was the best defender on the floor," said Rivers afterward. "He was terrific tonight; ran the floor, which he does. He does a lot of tough things. He's really buying into everything. All of them are, really. They've just got to get used to it. But, again, Courtney's important for us. We want a defensive unit to start games.
"We thought [Lee] was [a good defender]. When he was in Orlando -- the last winning team he was on, yes, he was a heck of a defender. And now, he's getting that back again, which is good."
The Celtics, as a whole, seemed to be getting it back on Thursday. Though the foundation of this year's team is vastly different from those of the past, the ingredients are in place for a defense that can easily rival, and even surpass, what's been on display for the last five years. The Nets shot just 37.2 percent for the game, with Boston forcing 19 turnovers, which translated to 27 points. Though Brooklyn's starters all reached double figures in points, they shot 15-of-41 to get there. More important than the numbers was the mindset Boston seemed to bring to the defensive table. The C's proved that when they bring that focus into the opening minutes of a game, they can dismantle their opponent before it has a chance to establish any sense of rhythm or pace.
That's the kind of progress Rivers can live with -- the kind he's been waiting for.