HARTFORD, Conn. -- Marcus Thornton rarely will be lauded for his defense -- hey, he knows his role is to score points -- but there was Thornton on Wednesday night registering three second-half steals as the Boston Celtics cranked up their defensive intensity and motored away for a 106-86 triumph over the New York Knicks at the XL Center.
Boston's defense contributed to the Knicks committing 28 turnovers and the Celtics converted those giveaways into 33 points. Midway through the third quarter in a two-possession game, Thornton simply ripped the ball out of the hands of Tim Hardaway Jr. in the backcourt, spun before corralling the loose ball, and knocked down a little leaner in the paint. A minute later, after drilling a 3-pointer, Thornton tipped a lazy pass at the top of the arc and raced the other way with two defenders in pursuit for a layup as Boston's lead ballooned to double figures.
Boston's defense often sparked its offense Wednesday. And if the rebuilding Celtics are going to win games during the regular season, it has to start on the defensive end. Through two preseason games, there have been some encouraging glimpses.
"That's what kind of team we are and that's what kind of team we have to be in order to be in every single game," said Avery Bradley, Boston's Dean of Defense who drew guffaws from pundits this summer when he boldly suggested that the Celtics have the potential to be a top-10 defense during the 2014-15 campaign.
"Every single night, we have to come out and compete on the defensive end and I feel like that's what we did tonight," Bradley said. "Me, Marcus [Smart], and when [Rajon] Rondo comes back, we have to put ball pressure on our opponents, every single night to give us a chance."
It's one thing for Bradley and Smart to spearhead that defensive charge, but Thornton's aggressiveness highlighted just how contagious Boston's defense was on this night. Even after Boston's top rotation players retired to the bench for the evening, end-of-the-roster guys such as rookie Dwight Powell and Tim Frazier (two steals apiece) came rushing off the bench to maintain the intensity.
"[Boston's defense] didn’t really stop," coach Brad Stevens said. "I thought Marcus Thornton played a great defensive half in the second half. I thought that our bench came in and just kind of kept guarding. I thought Tim Frazier and Rodney [McGruder] and Dwight Powell did a lot of good things; Joel [Anthony] does a lot of good things defensively.
"Everybody that played defended. That’s part of our emphasis right now, to play that way. And to get back and play that way."
The Celtics flirted with being a top-10 defensive team last season -- based on points allowed per 100 possessions -- until the wheels came off a bit in the second half of the year. With the addition of the tenacious Smart, the team has pledged to be more aggressive this year. Through two exhibition games, that's translated to 56 turnovers and a pair of 20-point victories.
Go ahead and suggest an asterisk based on the caliber of the Atlantic Division opponents thus far. But the effort is undeniable. It's remarkable that Boston shot 34 percent on Monday and still won by 20 points. But Stevens will use that as fodder to show what's possible with sustained defensive intensity.
Read on for notes on Thornton's root canal, Boston's offensive roller coaster and Powell's night on the wing.
Thornton had been a game-time decision after undergoing a root canal on Wednesday morning.
Despite still feeling the effects of the dental surgery -- and the numbing agent -- Thornton elected to play and finished with 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting with the team-high three steals.
"I talked to [team trainer] Ed [Lacerte], and Coach [Stevens] was like, The best thing to do is go get it done now so that I don’t have to miss any games during the regular season," explained Thornton. "It was tough, but I went and got it done this morning."
Thornton is unlikely to make the orthodontist a part of his gameday routine, but it did him well for one night. A reporter joked that Thornton wouldn't skip flossing from now on and he replied, "I'm definitely going to do everything I need to do to not have this done again."
The Celtics have searched in vain for a consistent bench scorer in recent seasons, bringing in the likes of Nate Robinson and Jason Terry, all looking for the sort of spark that Eddie House provided off the pine. Thornton has potential to be their microwave and has embraced the chance to own a perpetual green light on offense.
• Offensive roller coaster: The Celtics shot 34 percent in Monday's win, then bounced back to shoot 48.8 percent on Wednesday, all while connecting on 11 of 22 3-pointers. Stevens was asked about the two extremes. "You might have heard me say this last year, but law of averages probably plays itself out at some point," Stevens said. "I thought we shot it a little bit. We went on a great string of shooting today. I think shooters are going to make shots and that’s why I’m not going to get too high or too low based on what they are shooting right now. I feel like, and we talked about this early on, one of our strengths is our bigs’ skills, so we’re going to have to roll with that. There’s going to be some disadvantages in the post and, those type of things, we’re just going to have to figure them out." Stevens is referencing Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, who paired up to go 6-for-8 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc and generated 35 total points in the win.
• Powell shows versatility: The Celtics are trying to maximize the versatility and athleticism of rookie Dwight Powell, and Wednesday night saw the 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward spend extended time at the wing position. Powell, who was a stretch 4 in college, harassed opposing small forwards with his length and active hands, creating a pair of steals. Playing alongside Brandon Bass and Olynyk late in the third quarter, Powell shuffled over with help defense on an Andrea Bargnani drive and delivered an emphatic block in the paint. Powell is still fighting to stick on Boston's crowded roster, but Stevens has noted that he's made plays to distinguish himself during camp.
• The last word: How about Boston training camp invites Frazier and McGruder pairing up for this pretty alley-oop to punctuate Wednesday's win (h/t: @MrTrpleDouble10 + CSN broadcast)