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The Celtics passed a test, but Brad Stevens still has a nit to pick

Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 18 points, including this 3-pointer in the first half. Willie J. Allen Jr./AP

ORLANDO — Ever since training camp, the Celtics have put a great emphasis on figuring out how to defend the 3-point line and the paint. And they have done both remarkably well so far this season.

But Sunday figured to offer a new test. The Magic entered the night as the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA. They had made 42.1 percent of their attempts, a figure that is at once impressive and unsustainable.

Center Al Horford said Boston’s guards have taken great pride in swarming the perimeter, and they welcomed the new challenge. In this game, the defense was just as active and annoying as it has been all season, allowing Orlando to make just 6 of 29 attempts (20.7 percent), as the Celtics rolled to a 104-88 win.


It was Boston’s eighth victory in a row — and second straight on the road against a team with a winning record — and it ended up being lopsided, with the lead swelling to as many as 23 points in the final quarter.

Coach Brad Stevens was asked about how his team’s top-ranked defense had been so enveloping once again. The opponent’s 3-point shooters hadn’t made 3-pointers. The wins were flowing.

But Stevens seemed to understand that there is danger in putting this team on a pedestal, especially now. So he gave a nod to the defense before shifting the focus to a flaw.

“Guys did a really good job again of flying around and challenging shots and making it tough, switching at the right time, all that stuff,” he said. “If our offense catches up to our defense, hopefully we’ll be better. But our offense, we leave way too many points on the board.”

It may seem like nitpicking for a team that is surging like this, especially coming after losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward to an ankle injury. But Stevens is looking at the bigger picture. He sees that the Celtics have the NBA’s 15th-ranked offense. He sees players such as Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, and knows there is still plenty of firepower.


“I think it’s the story of the first two weeks,” he said. “We’ve been pretty consistent defensively, but offensively we need to maximize more possessions. But the one thing we’re trying to do, and you could see that late, was share the ball. So that was really good. Hopefully we can keep doing that. Hopefully we can keep playing together and we’ll make some shots, and we’ll execute a little better when we need to.”

The Celtics mostly echoed their coach’s sentiment.

“We know [the offense] works, we’ve just got to continue to trust it,” Irving said. “I feel like at the end of the game we do great things. We’ve just got to put together quarters 1-3 where our offensive execution can be something we rely on as well.”

Nevertheless, the Celtics were hardly pouting afterward. They won convincingly on a night when Irving was mostly subdued, held to 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting. Stevens was quick to point out that even when Irving is not scoring — and that will not happen often — it is impossible to overvalue how much his presence opens opportunities for others.

The Celtics struck with a balanced attack, as six of them scored in double figures. And one of the game’s most impactful players was on the court for less than 10 minutes and had just 6 points. The Celtics led for the entire third quarter but were never able to stretch their 11-point halftime lead. So at the start of the fourth, Stevens inserted third-string guard Shane Larkin because he felt Orlando’s guards had found too much rhythm.


“I’ve talked about Shane being able to change the tempo of the game, and we were kind of going back and forth, and I felt like we needed to pressure the ball more,” Stevens said. “So we were small, but we were really fast and they played really well.”

In less than four minutes, an unusual group consisting of Larkin, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris doubled an 8-point lead to 16. The Magic never recovered.

“We set our tone,” Smart said. “We made them do what we wanted them to do.”

Jaylen Brown had 18 points and seven rebounds, Horford had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Smart added 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists. Boston also continued to be a force on the glass, outrebounding the Magic, 54-45.

After making 4 of its first 6 shots to start the game, Orlando made just 5 of its next 22, as the Celtics did well to force long, contested jumpers. The Celtics were leading, 35-30, when they unspooled a quick 8-0 run that was capped by a Brown 16-footer. Boston led at halftime, 49-38. The Magic pulled within 4 points in the third before the Celtics finally struck in the fourth.


“Our defense is leading to some easy baskets and we still didn’t play our best on the offensive end,” Irving said. “That right there is an assuring feeling.”

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.