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Robb: Celtics Offense Improving, But Team Could Shine On Defense

HARTFORD (CBS) -- The Boston Celtics have won two straight games by 20 points to kick off their 2014 preseason.

The casual fan is probably not impressed by this development. It's just the preseason, right? How much do two blowout wins really matter?

Usually, this is the right kind of attitude to have while watching any NBA preseason action, but it bears noting already: this is not your 2013-14 Boston Celtics. It's apparent that this group will be better.

How much better exactly remains to be seen, but it's hard to ignore the strides Boston has made on both ends of the floor after just two games of action.

The improvement is coming in a variety of forms. It starts with new additions Marcus Thornton and Evan Turner. Both players are providing the Celtics offense with a couple of shot creators that were desperately needed. Through early preseason action, Thornton and Turner have been using their skills to find good scoring opportunities for themselves as well as their teammates.

Marcus Thornton
Thornton has shot 10-for-23 from the field, scoring 26 points for the Celtics over their first two preseason games. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk are another big part of the puzzle. They have quietly strengthened to their offensive repertoire this summer. Both big men had tough seasons last year shooting from beyond the arc and committed to becoming more consistent from 3-point range this season. The early returns in this department are quite strong, and both guys look more confident and composed from downtown compared to last season.

Head coach Brad Stevens knows not to get too excited about the improved accuracy of his potential starting frontcourt (who went a combined 6-for-8 from 3-point range Wednesday night) in the preseason, but he also understands outside shooting could be a big weapon for both players.

"Those [Knicks] are not in midseason form," Stevens warned. "And I think that our guys can get in better form as well. At the end of the day, they are doing some good things. I think what they do is they add a level of complexity because of their skill. And it's one of the reasons why we put such a premium on both of those guys' shooting."

So the offense is looking better, but what about the defense? That's actually the place the Celtics could really shine this season. Stevens has shifted his strategy a bit, pushing his group to be more aggressive on the perimeter with pressure, traps, and double teams. The move has already paid dividends, as Boston has forced a combined 55 turnovers in two preseason games.

A lot of those miscues can be attributed to early season rust, but it appears that Boston's formidable defensive backcourt of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart are wreaking havoc already and helping cover up for the fact the Celtics still lack a true rim protector.

Bradley likes the high defensive standard the Celtics are setting for themselves with their performance in these early games and wants it to continue.

"I feel like it was us a lot [forcing the turnovers]," Bradley said. "That's what kind of team we are, and that's what kind of team we have to be in order to be in every single game every single night. We have to come out and compete on the defensive end, and I feel like that's what we did tonight. Me, Marcus (Thornton), when (Rajon) Rondo comes back, we have to put ball pressure on them, on our opponents, every single night to give us a chance."

Despite the strong start here, make no mistake: this is still a flawed team. Vegas pegged the team's over/under for wins at 27.5 this season for a reason. Still, the team's early play, without their best player in the lineup, should not go unnoticed.

Stevens has this group playing hard and buying in, and even though we are just two weeks into the NBA calendar, it's apparent that the 2014-15 Boston Celtics might be better than expected.

Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.


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