February 3, 2018, 11:03 pm
OPPONENT: Boston Celtics
RECORD: 38-15 (20-8 at home, 5-5 last 10 games)
MEASURABLES: 104.8 offensive rating (17th), 99.8 defensive rating (1st), +5.0 net rating (fourth)
INJURIES: Kyrie Irving (out – sore quadriceps)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 12:00 EST, TD Garden (Boston), NBC Sports Northwest/NBC Sports Boston
Who needs Kyrie Irving? Not the Boston Celtics, apparently, who have won two straight games in equally-convincing yet strikingly-disparate measures with their superstar point guard nursing a sore quad.
Terry Rozier was the biggest beneficiary of Irving’s absence, not only starting in his place, but following up the first triple-double of his career in a blowout victory over the New York Knicks with a personal-best 31 points in a win over the Atlanta Hawks two days later. Jayson Tatum had a career-high 27 points against Atlanta, too, while Jaylen Brown and Al Horford combined for 37 points.
On Wednesday, without Irving, Boston put forth its best defensive performance of 2017-18, holding the Knicks to 73 points, an opponent low this season, and 32.2 percent shooting. Some 48 hours after that, again with Irving watching, the Celtics hung a season-high 119 points on the Hawks, courtesy of 26 assists and 60.8 percent true shooting, per NBA.com/stats.
If one statistic doesn’t accurately portray just how good this team is, Boston’s dominant performances on either side of the ball in a 48-hour window certainly do. That the Celtics pulled it off while Irving watched from the bench in street clothes only makes that feat even more impressive.
But beating the Portland Trail Blazers without Irving, of course, would be more encouraging than victories over struggling New York and lowly Atlanta. It wouldn’t seem that way based on the Blazers’ play against another Eastern Conference power, the Toronto Raptors, on Friday night, when Terry Stotts’ team trailed by 29 points in the second quarter en route to a 130-105 loss.
That game is closer to a standalone anomaly than a real indicator of Portland’s overall caliber, but it’s easy to see why Blazers fans might think it means something bigger. Portland’s recent surge of seven wins in eight games came mostly against substandard competition, ensuring the team’s two-game swing back east would be considered something of a litmus test for its prospects over the season’s remainder.
A second consecutive blowout loss would indeed be disappointing. The Blazers are suddenly within hopeful striking distance of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, a status normally reserved for borderline top-10 teams. No one is expecting Portland to advance to the Western Conference Finals; what team followers do expect is for the Blazers to not only make the playoffs, but be competitive once there.
How heartening, then, a hard-fought game at TD Garden would be for Portland and its fan base. Making the Celtics sweat won’t be easy, despite the continued absence of Irving. Brad Stevens’ team is hardly the offensive juggernaut his principles and system suggest. Boston is a contender this season because of its unrelenting defense more than anything else, an attribute that perhaps makes the green and gold an even tougher matchup for the Blazers than the rest of the league.
Why? No team in the NBA has a better, deeper or more versatile cast of perimeter defenders than the Celtics. Marcus Smart is unlike any other defender in basketball; Rozier is physical freak, with a dogged demeanor; Brown is 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, and probably most effective checking smalls; Tatum’s length helps mask his inexperience; and even some Boston bigs, like Horford, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye, have the quickness to bother guards off the bounce after switches.
Boston allows the sixth fewest 3-point attempts in the league, including the fewest from the corner, per Cleaning the Glass. Just as importantly, Celtics opponents shoot a league-low 33.8 percent from beyond the arc. It’s not as if Stevens’ team sacrifices elsewhere to defend the 3-point line, either. Boston foes get to the rim a fair amount, but shoot just 60 percent on tries from that hallowed range. No wonder Celtics opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 48.5, according to Cleaning the Glass, the lowest in basketball.
Those are the statistical outcomes of a team with top-tier defensive personnel that also has a ceaseless commitment to scheme. Boston switches screens both on and off the ball pretty frequently, for instance, but only resorts to that gambit when the defenders involved make doing so seamless, or a mistake ensures that’s the most prudent means of defense. You won’t see many low-resistance switches from the Celtics.
Needless to say, Boston will make offense hard on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. If the length, activity and overall aggression of the Celtics’ defense frustrates either star guard, the Blazers could be in for another rout. Some great teams fall apart without their best player. Boston, on the other hand, fortifies its existing strengths to become the type of gritty, we-before-me outfit that embodied Stevens’ earliest, overachieving teams.
That doesn’t mean Portland is helpless on Sunday. Far from it, actually. But what it does mean is that the Blazers have another tall, telling task ahead of them, even as Irving watches from the bench yet again.