HOUSTON — It is difficult to quantify how hard a basketball team plays. Metrics do not definitively gauge effort.
But the Celtics believe that on most nights, they will play harder than their opponents. And they have found that when they swipe and dive and sprint, some opponents get almost annoyed. They want the Celtics to remember that they are all among millionaires, and that maybe they should just, well, chill for a second.
But this Boston team is not interested in that.
“Players in this league, they don’t want to be physical,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said. “They don’t want to have somebody under them for 48 minutes, whether it’s the starting group or substitutions.
“This group is just relentless. I keep saying it because it’s, like, guys don’t care how anybody feels, we’re going to be right there at all times and be in your face.”
It has become obvious that if teams do not play as hard as the Celtics, if they ease up on offense, even for an instant, there is a good chance the ball will be taken from them. One-eighth of the season is now complete, and although so much still must unfold, this sample size at least offers some meaning. And through 10 games, the Celtics’ stubborn, turnover-causing defense is beginning to put itself in rare company.
The team already has 118 steals. In the last 30 years, just 11 teams topped that mark over a season’s first 10 games.
History shows that the Celtics are unlikely to improve upon or even maintain that pace of 11.8 steals per game, but according to basketball-reference.com, only four teams in NBA history have finished a season with a higher average.
The Celtics also lead the NBA in turnovers forced per game (19.8) — two ahead of the second-place Atlanta Hawks — and turnover percentage (17.4). Stevens said there is no secret formula or offseason training plan to thank for this feisty start. The approach, at its core, is rather simple.
“It’s all positioning,” said Stevens. “It’s been all positioning the whole time. These guys are doing a good job of taking appropriate gambles.
“You can’t play like a robot. But at the same time, they’re in the right spots, they’re very aggressive, they have great hands, and they’re playing really hard. If you do that, you have a chance to make things happen on that end of the floor.”
Although the steal will always be romanticized more than an opponent thudding a 10-foot jump shot off the rim, the Celtics are doing well not to allow easy scoring chances after failing to wrest the ball away.
They are currently third in the league with a 94.1 defensive rating, a metric that factors in the number of possessions a team has during a game. They are allowing 95.9 points per game, fifth best in the NBA.
In a win over the Thunder Sunday , Boston held the Oklahoma City’s dynamic point guard, Russell Westbrook, to a 5-for-20 shooting night. Then in a win over the Rockets Monday, they swarmed star James Harden, who tied his season low with 16 points.
“When teams come to play us, they know we’re going to get into them defensively,” forward Jae Crowder said. “We’re starting to build that DNA across the league. So that’s what we’ve got to have moving forward.”
As the Celtics stormed through the past 11 days, winning five of six games against potential playoff teams, each by 13 points or more, Stevens has tried to temper the enthusiasm.
He understands what is left. He understands there will be potholes.
But the beauty of relying on effort is that you are always in control of it, even if other areas deteriorate.
“We want that to be our rep,” Thomas said, “to where [opponents] know ‘OK, dang, we’ve got the Celtics tonight. They’re going to give it their all. We know they’re going to give 110 percent.’
“You want that rep, and we’ve just got to continue to work and continue to get better. I think we put ourselves in a good position.”