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It’s still unclear what kind of expectations to put on the Celtics. Certainly losing Gordon Hayward changed things considerably, forcing Kyrie Irving to do more and thrusting young players into the spotlight.

Already, however, Boston is excelling in a key area: team defense.

As good as Brad Stevens’ club has been in recent years, defensive consistency has lacked, especially in critical moments. The season is young, but if the Celtics can sustain high-level team defense, that could spell big things for Boston.

Boston’s defensive mythology

On paper, last season’s Celtics should have been a defensive juggernaut. Two insatiable on-ball defenders in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. Al Horford’s cerebral play in the paint. And a hound dog called Marcus Smart who can strike like a cobra.

In practice the Celtics’ defense wasn’t all that reliable, especially in the postseason.

Across every major defensive statistic, Boston ranked toward the bottom among playoff teams. Opponents shot a smooth 47.8 percent en route to 108.1 points per contest against the Celtics. It took an offensive outpouring by Kelly Olynyk just to get past Washington.

Against the NBA’s best, Stevens’ team was defensively inept. What exactly went wrong?

During the regular season, Boston successfully used Bradley, Smart, and others to defend the perimeter and limit fast-break opportunities. This helped keep the Celtics relatively competitive on defense, and for the average NBA team, helped contain individual performances. In the postseason, however, higher-quality opponents, better game-planning, and a focus on a half-court offense reduced Boston’s edge on the defensive end.

This is why Boston’s emerging defensive prowess is so alluring. In an era of insatiable offenses, a bonafide, high-caliber team defense is critical.

Key vulnerabilities

Boston really struggled to defend the paint last year, and the team was equally handicapped by a star point guard with limited defensive upside. Brad Stevens’ club faces the same issues this year, except with fewer proven individual defensive dynamos.

Rim protection has been an issue for the Celtics for the past few seasons. Rather than versatile, athletic bigs or a truly imposing center, Boston has charged less physically gifted players like Tyler Zeller, Amir Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk with protecting the paint. Even Al Horford, for his gifts, is not a traditionally intimidating shot blocker. In theory, those players were also equipped to deal with an NBA eager to spread the floor. This year could be different; more on that in a second.

The expectatioh has been that the perimeter could also be a problem for this Celtics team. It’s likely that Crowder’s defensive reputation is a bit overstated, but replacing Avery Bradley should be a real issue. As good as he is, Smart doesn’t necessarily have the size to guard someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron. And Kyrie has yet to prove himself as a reliable defensive threat in the NBA.

A work in progress

It really is too early to decide the Celtics have turned any new leaf and anoint them among the NBA’s defensive elite. That said, there is plenty to be excited about.

Beyond the numbers, the roster construction is tantalizing, and bespeaks great potential. As Stevens has made clear, he expects most of his guys to be able to rise to any defensive challenge. On paper, this club has the right combination of players to play elite team defense with all the switches and scheming that comes with it.

Boston’s young wings may be the biggest piece to the puzzle, especially with the loss of Gordon Hayward. Jaylen Brown has already shown flashes of hawkish defense and has the size and speed to defend the league’s best. Jayson Tatum has sneaky length and height, offering Stevens another athletic weapon to unleash on opponents.

It’s tough to pin so much on players with limited NBA experience but, so far, Jaylen and Jayson have more than held their own.

Another pillar to Boston’s defense is its new crop of big men. We’ve yet to see what Marcus Morris can do, but he gives Stevens a player who can comfortably pick up a wing on a switch just as easily as he can bang bodies amongst the trees. Guerschon Yabusele may offer the same adaptability, but his game is too unpolished to be relied upon in the near future.

On the flip side of the coin, Aron Baynes might be Boston’s first big man enforcer in quite some time. He’s built like an ox and plays with a mean streak and no fear for his own (highlight reel) safety. Like Morris, he represents the sort of talent that has been severely lacking for the Celtics for several years.

Final thoughts

That a team led by Kyrie Irving and a few promising young players should excel on defense really is remarkable. For that reason, it’s unfair to assume Boston will consistently defend at a high level as the season unfolds. Thus far, we’ve been treated to a glimpse of what is possible. By the spring, though, Boston’s young core could shoulder greater defensive expectations.

The key won’t be emergence of individual defenders but rather how the team defends as one. At the end of the day, this Celtics team has more size and athleticism than any Stevens has coached before. They should continue to rebound better, even while maintaining the speed and agility needed to guard higher level offenses. Boston’s switching schemes and ability to moderate the pace of games has been impressive.

There will be growing pains. The young guys will struggle. Kyrie will struggle. Unforeseen injuries will take their toll. This season, though, Brad Stevens has the raw materials to build his Celtics into a true defensive force.

Please follow me on Twitter @CTabatabaie

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Cameron Tabatabaie

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  • 4Kau11

    The first rule in the book of Stevens: Play hard and smart on defense or you don’t play. Speaking of Smart: In training camp and the four preseason games, Marcus Smart set the standard of how to play defense. Kyrie got the message as well as all the kids, “every ball is our ball.” In preseason Kyrie was diving for balls just like Smarty Pants. Finally, this Celtic team is smart.