Seven weeks into the season, the NBA standings look like the boa constrictor digesting an elephant in "Le Petit Prince." In the Eastern Conference, the fourth-place Brooklyn Nets have a 14-12 record, 2.5 games better than the 11th-place Washington Wizards. In the West, the fourth-place Denver Nuggets are two games behind the conference-leading New Orleans Pelicans and two games ahead of the 11th-place Minnesota Timberwolves.
Just two teams -- the 21-5 Boston Celtics and the 18-6 Milwaukee Bucks -- have won more than two-thirds of their games. And both of them have reason to believe that they'll get significantly better.
The Celtics and Bucks have dominated in different ways. They won't meet until Christmas, but it's worth checking in on them now because they've done this at far less than full strength.
And because that's about to change.
The 2022 Finals created a (green) monster
If the NBA Finals wounded the Celtics, everybody treated it his own way. When Marcus Smart couldn't sleep in the summer, he'd watch the film again, he told The Athletic. For Grant Williams, that was the last thing he wanted to do.
"I don't watch it," Williams said. "I can't watch it. Yeah, that shit pissed me off."
Williams does not like to look back "because I know what happened," he said. "I know what it was. We played them guys six times."
Four times, the Golden State Warriors stifled Boston. The Celtics, who scored 118.5 points per 100 possessions when they won 33 of their last 43 regular-season games, managed just 105.6 per 100 in the Finals and a measly 95.8 per 100 in the losses. As legendary as Stephen Curry's Game 4 explosion was, that's not what left scars.
"It wasn't our defense that crushed us," Williams said.
Boston's offense is a different beast now. With overqualified sixth man Malcolm Brogdon in the fold and sharpshooter Sam Hauser in the mix, there is more ball movement, more player movement and way more 3-point shooting. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are having career years (again), in part because, with more space and more pace, they're getting easier looks. They are also creating easier looks by setting more off-ball screens. All of new coach Joe Mazzulla's changes are designed to ensure that the offense never again falls apart the way it did in the Finals.
"He obsessed over it," Williams said. "He definitely had some thoughts on where we could improve on the offensive end ... And that was his main priority coming in. I thought he did a phenomenal job of implementing that for the team."
This is the rare case where "phenomenal" might be an understatement. After a 125-98 rout in Phoenix on Wednesday, Boston has scored 119.9 points per 100 possessions, the most efficient offense in NBA history. It has scored better in the halfcourt -- 108.3 per 100, per CTG -- than a couple of teams have scored overall. The Celtics' shooting splits are .493/.400/.844, with seven players -- Tatum, Williams, Brogdon, Hauser, Al Horford, Derrick White and Payton Pritchard -- making 40-plus percent of their catch-and-shoot 3s.
From the beginning of training camp, Mazzulla has emphasized "creativity," White said. "Not throwing the same look [at the defense]. Creating an advantage and then just keeping that advantage. So we've been doing a lot of different things, a lot of random stuff. And it's been working for us."
To beat a defense like the Warriors', Boston needed to be more Warriors-like on offense. It needed to be unpredictable. Mazzulla's offense is not unlike what former Celtics assistant Will Hardy has instituted in Utah, except for the two star wings at the center of everything.
"Obviously J.T. and J.B. can get a lot of attention and everybody else is just spacing off of that and being ready to shoot, drive," White said. "I mean, we have five guys on the court that can shoot, drive or create for someone else."
By adding White in February and Brogdon over the summer, Boston's front office stacked the roster with playmakers. Unlike the "too talented" Celtics of four years ago, though, the pieces fit on both ends. Williams said that the scorching stats on offense are a reflection of trust, buy-in and "growth from everybody down the line." And after an underwhelming start on defense, Mazzulla said Sunday that the defense is "slowly coming back," following a win in Brooklyn that was, in terms of points allowed per possession, their best performance of the season.
Boston's defensive rating is now tied for eighth on the season, and it ranks fifth since Nov. 7. Mazzulla attributed the improvement to improved ball pressure and active hands, adding that he's been pleased with the effort, the execution and the opponent shot quality.
"There isn't a difference between this year and last year, with the exception of we don't have Rob," Mazzulla said.
Robert Williams III, perhaps the most disruptive help defender in the NBA, is "pretty close to returning," Mazzulla said. He had arthroscopic knee surgery in late September, but has already scrimmaged with the team and ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that he's on track to come back in a week and a half. Through 26 games, the Celtics haven't so much replaced his rim protection as they have overcome its absence, to the tune of a plus-9.9 point differential in non-garbage time minutes, per Cleaning The Glass, a full three points better than any other team.
That point differential is not what should scare fellow contenders. The frightening part is that Boston morphed from a historically great defensive team to a historically great offensive team, and, it's on the verge of being both at the same time.
No worries, just vibes
The Bucks needed a clutch 3 from Grayson Allen to escape New York with a 109-103 win at Madison Square Garden last Wednesday. They missed 21 of their 26 3-point attempts through three quarters, and Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled out late in the fourth. They played with fire and did not get burned.
"It wasn't a pretty game at all," Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said.
As ugly as many of their games have been, the Bucks are not concerned about how they've fared offensively.
"I would say not [concerned] at all," Pat Connaughton said.
"Nah," Bobby Portis agreed.
At the time, Milwaukee was the top defensive team in the league but ranked just 17th in offensive efficiency and, according to Cleaning The Glass, 21st in the halfcourt. For a team with championship aspirations at the quarter mark of the season, such subpar scoring would normally be alarming.
Budenholzer said that he wants the Bucks to take better care of the ball, but expects the numbers to improve. "We feel good about our shot quality," he said, adding that "we're trying to learn and grow offensively in some ways." While they're working on that, they'll take wins however they can get them.
"Of course you'd like to be higher and better," Budenholzer said. "But there's some, I think, reasons why where we are is—we're good with it."
The biggest reason is the perennial All-Star who made his season debut two days later. While Khris Middleton was recovering from wrist surgery, Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday had to assume an uncomfortable amount of playmaking responsibility. And as Middleton's minutes ramp up, so should the Bucks' efficiency. Connaughton missed the first month, too, and the team is hoping that Joe Ingles, signed in the offseason after having ACL surgery in February, will tie the room together relatively soon.
Beyond health, though, the Bucks are confident because of 2021. Their championship was a testament to their resolve, and specifically to their ability to eke out wins when the offense isn't flowing well, every possession is a grind and the stakes are as high as they get.
"The defense is what we really want to focus on, and that's what we focused on two years ago," Connaughton said. "It started with the defense and then the offense kind of came."
"You look at our offense throughout that entire playoffs; besides the Miami series, we really didn't shoot the ball well," Portis said. "Defense helped lead to our offense in spurts, and just playing collectively, just sharing the basketball, taking good shots. If we miss 'em, then OK, but we're cool with that shot being missed because that's what we work on."
After a 126-113 win against Sacramento on Wednesday, Milwaukee is up to 14th on offense and, per CTG, 16th in the halfcourt. Ideally, it will turn into a juggernaut on both ends over the next few months, with Middleton and Ingles, both fully revitalized, on the wing. Regardless of who's on the floor, though, and whether or not shots are falling, Budenholzer is always preaching the same stuff: Spacing the floor, crashing the glass, pushing the pace and letting it fly.
"I think our chemistry and our camaraderie is at an all-time high," Portis said. "A missed shot is just one thing, but trying to be connected on the defensive side is another. We try to be as connected as we can on that end because that's what helps us win games and close games."
It is possible that the most significant stories about the Bucks' season have already been written. They've taken their defense to another level, with Brook Lopez locking down the paint, Jevon Carter badgering ballhandlers and opposing shooters no longer launching above-the-break 3s with impunity. Viewed through a certain lens, a harder-than-it-should-have-been road win against the Knicks on the last day of November is encouraging.
"Look, I don't want to say we enjoy winning ugly because it's not a habit we want to necessarily get into," Connaughton said. "But we do enjoy it because it shows the maturity, the growth, the experience that we've had over the last two, three, four, some of us five years together."
The Bucks have cultivated a belief that, as long as they stay composed, "Hey, shots will fall," Connaughton said. "Or if they don't, we'll find ways to crash the offensive glass or try to find ways to win when we shouldn't." If they can do that, then maybe they don't even need Middleton to elevate their offense to elite status or Ingles to return to his 2020-21 form. Their offense was pretty gross against Boston in last year's playoffs, and they almost won that seven-game series without Middleton playing a single minute. If he is merely present for a rematch, then the Celtics will be facing a fundamentally different team.
But the Bucks will be, too.