The Celtics and Tenacious D

Jack Black and Kyle Gass would be proud of the way the Boston Celtics have been playing defense so far this season, and they had no trouble living up to the billing right out of the gate last night in what turned out to be arguably my favorite game of the year. As this fan experiment picks up steam now 12 games into the process, I find myself more and more excited not just about watching the Mavericks, but getting a close look at other teams as well. The young and restless Celtics are as entertaining as any team Dallas has played all year, and they very nearly put a stop to the Mavs’ winning streak.

Boston came into the matchup red-hot, having won five of their last six and three straight, but they ran into a Dallas club that seems to have found some momentum of their own. After taking down two very tough teams in Atlanta and Oklahoma City, the Celtics then destroyed the Rockets on Monday and got Kevin McHale fired. Isn’t it ironic that McHale’s last game as a Rockets coach came against the team he spent all 13 years of his Hall-of-Fame playing career with?

In any case, Boston was feeling it coming into last night’s contest, and with a defensive rating of 96.8 that ranked second behind only the Spurs and a mind-boggling 11.8 steals per game as a team, their defensive reputation preceded them. They’re doing some amazing things when the other team has the ball this year; on top of the stats just mentioned in the previous sentence, they entered play last night ranked first in the league in forcing turnovers and were holding opponents to a stingy 46.7 percent effective field goal percentage, good for sixth place.

All this is possible thanks to standouts like the former Maverick Jae Crowder, who steals the ball nearly five times every 100 possessions and has an individual defensive rating of 93, and big men Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson, both of whom throw in a fair amount of steals and blocks of their own. Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, with defensive ratings of 97 and 93 respectively, give the team an even tougher defensive look.

It didn’t take long for this famed defense to make its mark, either. A little past the halfway point in the first quarter, the Mavericks were looking to close the gap after a slow start, but after narrowing the lead to 13-11, things got a little ugly. In one of the most impressive short stretches I’ve seen any team put together, Boston went on to an absurd 18-2 run that would have been difficult to stomach if they didn’t do it in such entertaining fashion.

Here’s what happened after Chandler Parsons knocked down a jumper with 6:07 left to play. First, Crowder answered at the other end, followed by an Isaiah Thomas layup and an Avery Bradley three-pointer to make it 20-11. After a timeout, Dirk Nowitzki calmed Mavericks fans with a fadeaway jumper to seemingly end the run, but Boston’s best had yet to come. What followed was a swarm of Bradley points, as the sixth-year guard proceeded to knock down two unanswered jumpers and score on a layup after stealing the ball from Dirk. After a Devin Harris jumper that Olynyk blocked, Bradley capped off his 12-point outburst with another three thanks to an offensive rebound by Sullinger that earned him a second chance. Immediately after this, Sullinger intercepted an errant Wes Matthews pass, resulting in a Thomas layup. This whole flurry of events happened in about two minutes of play and left the Mavericks speechless, and Boston’s high-energy defense absolutely had a big hand in it.

This isn’t a Celtics blog, though, so that’s enough gushing about their defense. Things would of course get much better for the Mavericks, especially with a 36-point fourth quarter that saw the big names step up and bury those pesky Bostonians deep in the ground along with all their Irish relatives that fell before them over the years. Unlike the majority of Dallas games so far this year, the bulk of the minutes went to the starting lineup rather than getting spread around to everyone. Deron Williams led both teams with just over 36 minutes, and he nailed four cold-as-ice free throws in the game’s final 20 seconds to keep the Celtics from getting too close en route to scoring 16 points and racking up 6 assists.

Nowitzki had another outstanding shooting performance (9-for-14) with a game-high 23 points, and despite struggling at times from the floor, Matthews was right in the thick of things as well, scoring 18 points and knocking down two huge threes, both times after missing the first try and getting a second attempt following a Dwight Powell rebound.

All things considered, this was a hell of a game between two hot teams that went down to the wire, and I’m not sure what else you can ask for when your side comes out on top. Anyone watching as Thomas raced down the court after two unlikely Raymond Felton misses from the line with 15 seconds to play and the Celtics down just 104-102 had to have been completely caught up in the moment, unable to blink. These are the moments that define entire games, entire seasons, and sometimes the resulting highlights become part of the NBA’s storied history forever. You know it’s happening even in real-time, but no one has the time to acknowledge it — all they can do is watch, frozen, as the players try to race the clock and make the play that lives on forever.

Thomas wasn’t destined to make that play last night. Felton swooped in from behind and knocked the ball away, and the Mavericks cemented their win. That’s five straight now, and none of them have felt sweeter than this one. They’ve earned the trip back home, and they can rest today as a team that now sits at a surprising 8-4. A Friday night showdown with the Jazz looms.

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