Having tons of familiarity with the team that we follow, but not being as knowledgeable about what’s going on around the league, is something we’re all a little guilty of. I’m going to try and make an effort this year to reach out and network with some other SB Nation bloggers around the NBA to preview significant games on Orlando’s schedule. This time around, Keith Smith of CelticsBlog was kind enough to answer some questions I prepared for him to help preview Sunday’s match-up between the Magic and the Boston Celtics.
1) The Celtics, at least thus far, have transformed themselves this season from an average defense to an NBA elite defense (Top DRtg in NBA: 97., 93.8 opp. ppg). What do you attribute to this significant improvement?
Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA): The defense is the surprise of the season for Boston so far. Generally it takes a while for a team to build enough cohesiveness to be successful on that front. The Celtics have come out firing on that end of the floor. The biggest difference is the overall length and speed of the defenders. While Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder were wonderful defensive players, neither was known for being long or overly quick. They've been replaced by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, whose length and athleticism make up for a lot of their youthful mistakes. On the backline, Aron Baynes brings a big physical presence at the rim and on the glass that the Celtics have lacked for several years. And, finally, Kyrie Irving is engaged and giving great effort. We haven't always seen that from him, so it is hard to know if that is here to stay or an early season visitor only.
2) What kind of first impressions (Tatum) or improvements (Brown, Rozier, Smart) have you noticed in the play of Boston's young nucleus this season?
Smith: Jayson Tatum has been better than ever could have been expected out of the gate. They hoped he could score at all levels and he's shown that. It was also hoped that he'd be a solid rebounder and he's been that as well. His defense has been the big surprise though. He's looked more ready on that end than most thought he might ever be. For the others, Marcus Smart is still Marcus Smart. He's making all the plays to win games that rarely show up in a boxscore. Terry Rozier has been up and down. When he's on the attack and gets after it, he's very good. When he dribbles for ten seconds before making a move it rarely ends well. That said, he generally brings a good defensive effort each night. Jaylen Brown is showing signs of making the leap, maybe a year earlier than expected. He's been aggressive and physical on both ends and his shot looks much improved. It is still early, but he has to be a leading candidate for Most Improved Player.
3) Can you speak to Kyrie Irving's adjustment: on a new team, in a new role, running a new system, etc. How do you think Kyrie Irving is adjusting to life in Boston, playing for the Celtics?
Smith: Kyrie Irving has been terrific. There was some "Twitter buzz" that he looked off, but that seemed off-base. He's scoring with relative ease, much like Isaiah Thomas did, albeit in different ways. He and Al Horford have developed early chemistry and have a nice two-man game working. And, as covered above, he's giving tremendous effort on defense. Simply by virtue of being bigger than IT, he is making plays that IT couldn't make. Whether that effort sustains is the big question.
4) When Boston visits Orlando Sunday, will there be a positional match-up that stands out to you, or perhaps one that you're looking forward to?
Smith: I'm curious to see how the Celtics defend Aaron Gordon. My guess is that they'll use a similar approach to the one they used against Giannis Antetokounmpo and will drop Al Horford back and let him shoot. If Gordon is knocking down shots at anything near the clip he's opened the season at, they'll have to adjust. In addition, Boston switches everything, so you'll see any number of players guarding Gordon. The secondary matchup I want to see is Jonathan Simmons against Marcus Smart off the bench. Neither of them back down from anyone and there are liable to be some fireworks when they go head to head.
Thanks again to Keith Smith for taking the time to help preview Sunday’s early evening tilt between the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics at the Amway Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 P.M. EST.