As the nation tried to get through its election hangover Wednesday, the NBA had a full slate of games. If you were trying to sleep it off, here are three things we learned.
1) Boston now has the worst defense in the NBA, it cost it another game Wednesday. The Celtic defense is not just bad — it is measurably the worst defense in the NBA this season, allowing 112.3 points per 100 possessions (according to NBA.com). Worse than the Knicks. Worse than the Rockets. Worse than the Magic, Blazers and everyone else coasting on that end. That defense is costing the Celtics games.
The latest example: the Washington Wizards. They had scored just 97.7 points per 100 possessions (24th in the NBA) coming into Wednesday night’s game against Boston. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and the rest had been struggling — then against Boston they put up 118 points, a 125.8 per 100 offensive rating, and Porter drops a career-high 34, making plays all over the court.
It was ugly early for Boston — 34-8 Wizards at the end of the first quarter — and the Celtics were not digging out of that hole. The Celtics have now trailed by at least 20 points during each of their last three games (that happened just eight times all last season).
The Celtics were top five in defense last season and brought back the same core in the same system — so what has happened? Injuries play a part, with Al Horford (a good defender) and Jae Crowder out, plus Marcus Smart missed the first few games of the season. But this is more than that. Boston is struggling to defend the pick-and-roll, particularly defending the roll man (who is scoring 1.11 points per possession on that play against the Celtics) — their rotations are not sharp. Beyond that, it just seems to be an effort thing. One scout pointed to how poorly they are closing out on jump shooters — that’s not skill or size, that’s just effort.
I expect Boston will turn this around defensively, but until they do there will be ugly losses like the one Wednesday against Washington.
2) Atlanta makes a statement with back-to-back wins over Cavaliers and Bulls. The Atlanta Hawks would like you to know they are for real this year. Or at least as real as we’re going to declare any team eight games into the season. Do you want evidence?
• Atlanta just dropped both the NBA champ Cavaliers then the surprisingly hot Bulls on a back-to-back.
• Atlanta is outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions (second only to the Clippers this season).
• They have the third-best defense in the NBA and a Top 10 offense so far.
• Each night a different guy seems to step up, against the Bulls Wednesday it was Thabo Sefolosha.
We could go on, but you get the idea — the Hawks are 6-2 with the Sixers next up. Dennis Schroder is growing more comfortable and is attacking as the starting point guard, Paul Millsap is still playing like an All-Star. Dwight Howard has fit in well — he’s been a beast on the boards, defended well, and Mike Budenholzer is using him brilliantly, putting him in situations where he’s asked to do more than just score (and Howard is fully buying in). The bottom line is we knew Cleveland would be elite in the East this season, we knew Toronto would be good, but after that we had questions about which other teams would step up. Atlanta is stepping up.
So when those two get together, you know there will be a show — DeRozan had 37 points, Westbrook 36 in the Raptors 112-102 win in Oklahoma City Wednesday.
DeRozan has scored at lest 30 points in six of the Raptors first seven games. The last two players to do that (according to ESPN): Bernard King and Michael Jordan. When you’re scoring at their rate, good things happen.
The Raptors are 5-2 on the young season and look like a team that can match last year’s historic run, at least so far.