BOSTON -- Midway through the second quarter of Wednesday's game, Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris intercepted an errant Boston Celtics pass. Turning to examine his opportunity in transition, he found only Marcus Smart in front of him.
Harris accelerated the other way looking to attack, but Smart provided immediate resistance at the midcourt stripe. Harris went behind his back with the dribble, but before he could even collect the ball on the other side Avery Bradley had swarmed, forcing Harris to try to switch dribble hands again. By this time, Smart was back on his right hand and calmly leaned his left shoulder in while stripping the ball away.
While Harris stumbled and spun along the baseline under his own basket, the Celtics broke out in transition the other way. Smart attacked the basket and, drawing a crowd, kicked it to Bradley on the wing for a wide-open 3-pointer that extended Boston's double-digit lead.
"I'm jealous of the defenders they have," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said before his team dropped a 111-103 decision to the Celtics on Wednesday night at TD Garden. "They have a team of grit and toughness."
The Celtics harassed Denver into 20 turnovers during Wednesday's game, 15 of which were off steals. It was the fourth straight game that Boston had forced 20 or more turnovers and the fifth time this season that Boston had 15 or more steals.
"It's funny, you try to prepare your team and you say this is what is going to happen and you hope you can avoid those pitfalls," Malone said after the game. "But we talked about how [the Celtics are] very active on the defensive end. They turn you over, they get a lot of steals, and they average close to 19 points per game [off turnovers]. So we gave them 20 points off our 20 turnovers."
The Celtics, who are tied with the Golden State Warriors for the second best defensive rating in the league while allowing 98.7 points per 100 possessions, are at their best when they are creating turnovers and fueling an otherwise inconsistent offense by generating easy buckets in transition.
For the season, the Celtics rank third in the league in opponent turnover ratio, with opponents averaging 16.8 turnovers per 100 possessions. Over the past four games, that turnover percentage has spiked to 19.9 (the next closest team is at 18 during that span). Boston averages 19.2 points per game off turnovers, but that number is up to a whopping 24.8 points per game over the past four games; that's three points higher than the next closest team and about nine points higher than the league average in that span.
Four players on the Celtics are averaging better than a steal per game, including Jae Crowder (1.8), Smart (1.7), Bradley (1.6) and Isaiah Thomas (1.1). Three more players are averaging just less than one steal per game (Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk). When the Celtics are flying around on defense, they generate deflections and create turnovers with their activity.
"For us it’s about being in position, doing the right things, and just being aggressive -- our aggressive selves," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "There have been very few games where we haven’t been aggressive, but there have been games where we have been out of position. And there have been games where we’ve been hurt either in transition or on the glass that have ultimately cost us. When we do those things pretty well then our aggression usually leads to turnovers.
"But it’s not something we really talk about. It’s certainly not something we stress. We never talk about, ‘Get steals tonight.’ We talk about being in the right spot at the right time."
Stevens wasn't thrilled with how Boston took its foot off the defensive accelerator in the fourth quarter, allowing the Nuggets to whittle a 22-point lead down to single digits before Turner helped Boston salt the game away.
The Celtics had an obvious lapse in defensive intensity for a brief stretch earlier in January but seem to have rediscovered their defensive DNA the past four games. Stevens would still like to see it tighten up a bit, but it's hard to argue with the two-way results the past four games.
"Defensively we’re playing at a high level," Thomas said. "I think when we bring the effort on the defensive end, the offense carries itself. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that the last few games."
Added Olynyk: "[Defense is] where we have to be good. We have a lot of great defensive players and when we are playing together, with energy, vocally, we are a pretty good defensive team. Before the last three or four games, we were giving up 115 [points] and above for a little stretch there when we were losing. We just had to dial it back in and get some stops."
Amir Johnson, the rim-protecting big man that Boston splurged on this past summer, bottom-lined it, saying: "They say defense wins games, and I definitely believe that."
Stevens cautions against getting too caught up in the steal totals, but said it's obvious when his team is playing with a defensive tenacity.
"I don’t even pay attention to the steals, to be honest," he said. "It means nothing. All it means is that we’re in good position. When we start gambling and taking ourselves out of position, it’s not worth it. And those feeble attempts get you beat, and we had a couple of those tonight that got scored on.
"But we started the game in the right direction, getting steals. Those are worth it but you just have to be able to balance that. You can’t get caught up in the steals-are-defense thing if you’re a player and, certainly, if you're a coach. You’ve just got to be in the right spot to make it as difficult as possible. Then when that person brings the ball in your direction and you’re in the right spot, then be active with your hands and be aggressive. I think that our guys have done a pretty good job with that all year."