How Brad Stevens and a maniacal Marcus Smart have saved the Celtics defense

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Count me as one of those people who thought the Celtics would be terrible after losing Al Horford. Kyrie Irving was their best scorer, sure. But Horford was their Swiss Army knife.

He defended, stretched the floor and, in some cases, would even guard the best player on the opposing team.  It’s rare that we see a 3&D big man scampering around the NBA, but Horford was exactly that for the Celtics.

Over his three seasons with Boston, he shot 38 percent from 3-point range, anchored their defense and spent time in May locking up Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was a fulcrum offensively with his passing and screen setting. He constantly set the table for the team on both ends.

It’s not easy to find a guy who is a plus on offense, and who can guard Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo if you needed him to. It should be impossible not to take a step back after losing a player like that — especially when you replace him with a player like Enes Kanster.

No disrespect to Enes, but his most notable moment in the NBA might be this:

It’s reasonable to expect a big dip in defense, especially as the Celtics also lost a rim protector in Aron Baynes. But not only have the Celtics survived — they’re thriving. They’ve racked up eight straight wins and are sitting atop the East, and the defense has actually … improved.

Here’s how they’ve done it.

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Brad Stevens has trusted Daniel Theis and Robert Williams

The Celtics 102.4 defensive rating so far ranks 8th in the league this season, but it’s a more stingy rating than they ever had through three seasons with Horford on the back end of their defense.

Part of the reason why, ironically enough, is that they haven’t played Horford’s theoretical replacement: Kanter. Kanter has been hurt — he played in the season opener against the 76ers and didn’t play again until last night’s game against the Mavericks.

His absence has allowed Daniel Theis and Robert Williams to blossom as a one-two punch at center. They’re averaging a combined 3.7 blocks per game so far this year. Brad Stevens is asking them to do what they’re comfortable doing — protecting the rim. So far, it’s working.

They’re leaning into it. Their top five most played lineups feature either Theis or Williams at center. Stevens will have to figure out how to get Kanter minutes without sacrificing their rim protection, but it’s a good problem to have.

Marcus Smart is a maniac

Smart just likes to terrorize things. Watching him on defense right now is an adventure, and Stevens has given him the green light to wreak havoc. It’s fun.

Dribbling around him is a no-go. Don’t do it. Just ask RJ Barrett what happens when you do.

It’s not just that, though. He also willingly guards power forwards. That’s insane already. But that’s before even considering the fact that he’s actually good at it.

When they try to face up against him, he gets up underneath them and doesn’t allow them to put the ball down.

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He also stonewalls dudes in the post as a 6’4, 220-pound guard.

That’s special stuff that you can’t really replicate with any one player. He’s been the Swiss Army knife that Horford was for them, but in guard form.

I literally cannot think of another guard that can do this. I’m also pretty sure that there isn’t one that actually WANTS to do this. Smart is just insane.

Just look at these numbers. So far, he’s forced 24 turnovers so far this season. He’s only committed eight of them himself. Players are shooting a mere 28.8% when being guarded by Smart this season. That’s a Defensive Player of the Year resume if I’ve ever seen one.

It’s tough to say whether the Celtics will keep this up on defense — especially as Kanter eases his way back into the lineup. It’s worth keeping an eye on, though.

Every special defense has a special player. Right now, Smart is looking like that guy in Boston.

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