The Boston Celtics are turning over opponents at an alarmingly high rate early in the 2015-16 season, but what's more impressive is the way they're doing it. There are times when Boston's tenacious perimeter defenders are straight up ripping the ball out of opponents' hands this season.
Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones found that out the hard way on Monday night. Midway through the third quarter of what was then a one-possession game, Jones came down with an offensive rebound, but Celtics guard Marcus Smart was nearby and didn't seem keen on giving the Rockets a second chance. Smart went over to the baseline and essentially tore the ball from Jones' hands. At the other end of the floor, Isaiah Thomas fed a cutting Jae Crowder for a Michael Jordan-esque up-and-under layup that drew a foul and helped Boston score 28 of the final 36 points of the quarter as Boston ran away for a 111-95 triumph at the Toyota Center.
Celtics defenders aren't just making things tough for opponents, they are grinding them down.
"We can feel [opposing teams are defeated], and that’s what we’re trying to do," Smart told reporters after Monday's win. "Once we get on a roll like that in the defensive end, we lock down. We want teams to feel defeated. We want to keep our foot on the gas pedal and keep going."
The Celtics generated 16 steals on Monday night, and Houston turned the ball over 22 times, leading to 39 points. Boston couldn't have looked more ragged in the first half, but it cranked up the defensive intensity in the final three minutes -- including a sequence in which its bigs helped create three consecutive turnovers -- and erased a 15-point deficit to tie the game heading into halftime.
The Rockets, who coach Kevin McHale has blasted for their lack of defensive effort, didn't take long to mentally check out. Boston turned much of the late third and early fourth quarters into a highlight reel. The energy was so obvious that the Celtics' entire bench stood for the final three minutes of the third quarter. And when Avery Bradley splashed the second of back-to-back 3-pointers, Boston's bench lost its collective mind in celebration, with R.J. Hunter bouncing around in delirium while Jared Sullinger crouched to the floor and wiggled like a surfer riding a wave.
But it is Boston's defense that has people taking notice of a team that has now won five of its past six games, with each of those wins coming against potential playoff squads in Washington, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Oklahoma City and Houston.
The Celtics' defensive efficiency rating dropped to 94.1 after Monday's win, tying them for the third-best mark in the league with the defending-champion Golden State Warriors. (Only the Spurs and Heat are better.) What's more, Boston opponents own a turnover rate of 19.4 percent, far and away the top rate in a league where the average is closer to 15 percent. (Utah is second best, but 1.4 percent behind.)
"[Boston defenders] are in the right spots, they are very aggressive, they have great hands and they are playing really hard. If you do that, you have a chance to make things happen on that end of the floor," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "But it’s gotta be our DNA. If it’s not our DNA, we’re in trouble."
Defense has been Stevens' focus since he arrived here in 2013. He has challenged the Celtics every season to be a top-10 defense, and they have an awfully good chance of achieving that goal if they play like they did the past two nights, during which they limited stars Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Smart's final line on Monday epitomizes the team's effort. Boston's second-year point guard missed 10 of the 11 shots he put up and finished with more turnovers (five) than points (four). And yet he was plus-30 in plus/minus because of the way his defense sparked the Celtics. Smart finished with five steals, six assists and nine rebounds over 30 minutes.
There was a minor dustup on the baseline during the third quarter that resulted in three technical fouls, and Boston took umbrage with the way Jones stepped over a prone Amir Johnson on the floor. It only further fueled Boston.
"We’re a very aggressive team and we’re not backing down from anybody," said Smart, who also got under the skin of Westbrook on Sunday in Oklahoma City. "There’s going to be some chippiness and some altercations."
Boston took out its anger on the defensive end.
"Coach Stevens didn’t want [the Rockets] scoring 35 points in the second half," Smart said. "He gave us that challenge.
"We try to pride ourselves on the defensive end, because we know our offense is going to come."
The Rockets posted only 13 third-quarter points, and if not for a late fourth-quarter burst, Boston might have achieved Stevens' goal. (Houston scored 40 in the second half.)
The Celtics still got a 16-point win. Each of Boston's past five wins have been by double figures, including against Washington (20), Milwaukee (16), Atlanta (13) and Oklahoma City (15).
Is Boston truly a contender in the East? If they play like they have so far, they're going to give themselves a chance on a nightly basis.