In recent years the Celtics have been known for having tough, gritty, defensive-minded groups that bother and pester opponents until they trudge off the floor. They have forced plenty of misses, but they have generally not swatted away many shots.
Since coach Brad Stevens was hired in 2013, Boston has never finished a season ranked higher than 18th in the NBA in blocks per game, and in 2014-15 it was last. But this year has been different, and Monday provided the latest example.
The Celtics set a franchise-record with 16 blocked shots as they grabbed a 112-104 win over the Nets. (The NBA started tracking blocks in 1973-74, so Bill Russell might have a slight quibble with this record-setting tally, but it will live on nonetheless.)
Boston is now ranked fifth in the NBA in blocks per game, with 5.7. Aside from rookie Robert Williams, who has registered a jaw-dropping 32 in just 198 minutes, the Celtics do not exactly have high-flying rim protectors. But Stevens said the team’s big men play with great positioning, and its wings hold their ground.
“I’d say that those are the two things that allow you a chance to block shots,” he said, “unless you’re just jumping all over the place, and that usually ends up in fouls more than blocks. But our positioning’s been pretty good, and our bigs — Al [Horford] and [Aron] Baynes — do a great job of waiting for the ball to come to them.”
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart led a balanced Celtics scoring with 21 points each. Horford had 14 points, 11 rebounds, 6 blocks, and 5 assists.
All-Star Kyrie Irving missed the game because of a strained left hip. The injury is not considered serious and his status is officially day-to-day, but the team has played well without Irving at TD Garden since last season.
It has not played well without him on the road, and when he missed the Jan. 14 game against the Nets in Brooklyn, the Celtics lost and were mired in a three-game losing streak. In that game, the Celtics were outscored by 23 points in a grisly third quarter. Monday’s third quarter was not quite that bad, but the Celtics did give up 38 points as they saw their earlier 13-point lead flip into a 3-point deficit.
This time, however, they bounced back with a powerful start to the fourth, using a 12-0 run to reclaim control.
“I thought we played a lot better, a lot more purposeful,” Stevens said. “I thought Baynes protected the rim for us great in that stretch, even with five fouls. And then, that allowed us to get out and run a little bit which was good, too. I guess after you give up 38 in the third, you’ve got to start guarding a little better, so 6 [points] in the first nine minutes [of the fourth] was a good thing.”
Nets guard D’Angelo Russell, a potential All-Star this season, spearheaded his team’s third-quarter burst by hitting three 3-pointers in less than a minute. But Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was frustrated by Russell’s lack of effort going after rebounds early in the fourth. He removed him with 8:42 left and Brooklyn trailing by 7 points, and Russell did not return.
“I think I missed a rebound, a 50-50 play that kind of set him off a little bit,” said Russell, who had a game-high 25 points. “I have to be better.”
The Nets, who have mostly spent recent years as a punch line, have emerged as one of the league’s surprising teams. They are in sixth place in the East, and a win Monday would have pulled them within 2½ games of the fifth-place Celtics.
But they were missing four rotation players, including the borderline All-Star Spencer Dinwiddie, who underwent thumb surgery Monday and is expected to miss 3-6 weeks.
Brooklyn was plucky nevertheless. Using a rotation that included G-League call-up Mitchell Creek, whose NBA experience entering Monday totaled less than one minute, and Theo Pinson, who had played in just eight games all year, Brooklyn spent most of the game in a 2-3 zone defense.
It is a practice that remains unusual in the NBA, but is becoming increasingly common as teams look for ways to slow down historically efficient offenses. The Celtics found plenty of openings on the perimeter, and eventually found their way through stretches in which they struggled to make shots.
“Try to be where they’re not,” Brown said of the Celtics’ zone-busting approach. “Try to find those seams and just attack. Usually when teams are in the zone, it’s a curveball. They’re hiding something, so we’ve just got to be aggressive and exploit whatever it is they’re hiding.”
Smart, whose 3-point shooting has been a bit of a revelation this season, hit four of them against Brooklyn, and the burly Baynes added two. After the game, Stevens jokingly referred to the duo as his “Splash Brothers,” a nod to Golden State’s unstoppable duo, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.