BROOKLYN — Al Horford is already the heartbeat of his Celtics team. He is the (second) newest player on Brad Stevens’s team, but he is already its most reliable.
Boston survived a Jeremy Lin onslaught to beat the Brooklyn Nets 100-97 in their fourth preseason game. Horford finished with 13 points in 21 minutes on 5-of-8 shooting with 9 rebounds. He and Terry Rozier were the only players on the team not to miss a free throw, which was endemic for the Celtics Thursday evening.
The Celtics got smacked around early on, but the second unit eventually recovered to keep stride with Jeremy Lin’s Nets.
"I thought we got punched in the mouth a little bit early,” Stevens said. “The first unit did not look as good as they did last week. And then our bench did some good things throughout the night.”
Marcus Smart was the shining point, running the offense well in the first quarter and showing good composure and pace driving the lane. Although he had some horrendous bricks on shots that should have been in rhythm, his overall performance stood out in a messy game for the Celtics.
“I thought he was very good [tonight],” Stevens said. “If we say there’s six starters with Marcus, I thought that he was probably as impactful as any of them.”
His comfort driving the lane has made strides, as he is starting and stopping to throw off defenders’ timing and seeing passing lanes once he makes deep penetration.
Marcus Smart to Jaylen Brown ✈️ for the alley-oop slam! pic.twitter.com/kbzwlwLcWQ— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 14, 2016
And of course, Horford is always there somewhere to bail out any broken possession. The sets run for him work to near-perfection, but it’s his ability to make a broken play continue to progress that has made the biggest difference. The Celtics haven’t had much need to “go to him for a bucket,” but it’s very much due to the fact that they don’t get into those scenarios with him on the floor.
One of their best bucket-getters has been Terry Rozier, who is still simmering after firing off a pair of threes in the second half. He finished with 10 points, 7 assists and 3 steals in 21 minutes, keeping the second-half offense churning after Smart was given the towel early.
Rozier continues to be the surprising bright spot on this roster and is pushing for Stevens to go even smaller with his strong play. His shooting has been well beyond what the team expected at this point, with his elbow three already consistent off the bounce.
He also can claim the most uncomfortable alley-oop in the NBA so far this season.
Jaylen Brown has made plenty of mistakes, especially on defense. But he is so dynamic from the weak-side wing that he will have to be a key part of Stevens’s plans. Every time Brown gets into space, he makes a play happen.
“These are the moments that every kid when he’s four years old in the driveway dreams for,” Brown said after the game.
Stevens says that Brown is ahead of schedule in how effective his versatility can be.
Well he’s been asked to do a lot. I went in to the preseason thinking that if we can keep him at one spot, it’s probably better, but I think that most of his value right now in how he can add value to winning is being a versatile player. Guard some threes, guard some fours. Switching and that type of thing. We’ve thrown him to the wolves in the games a little bit at the four, but he’s done a pretty good job with that. He still has a ways to go to be the best version of himself, but he’s 19 and I think he’s going to be really good. --Brad Stevens
Whether it’s a reaching finger roll or a one-handed pass to a weak-side shooter from a drive-and-kick, Brown keeps the ball moving at full speed. His behind-the-back dish to Mickey on the break before knocking down the icing free throws to close the game was the cherry on the slice of Junior’s Cheesecake.
Jaylen Brown went behind--the-back to Mickey for the one-handed slam to put the C's ahead! pic.twitter.com/KGqJvP5aXC— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 14, 2016
“The behind-the-back was the right play,” Stevens said. “The defender was coming at his hand. That was just flipping it behind his back to the trailer was the right move. I thought his defensive versatility was a plus at the end.”
Jonas Jerebko won the broadcast’s player of the game, which he rightfully earned in the third quarter alone. Between a svelte step-back from the free throw line to a perfect left-handed drive to slip a pass to Jordan Mickey all alone under the rim—which was correctly called for a charge—Jerebko was confident and comfortable with the ball. He finished with a trio of assists in his 16 minutes and was a menace on the defensive glass, grabbing 5 boards.
Jerebko has always been a solid pick-and-roll defender, but he showed his interior strength Thursday. His verticality in the paint was crucial for the second-unit defense, which was without Horford and Johnson. His performance gives viability to potential lineups that could put Jerebko in for Amir with the starting lineup while Olynyk is recovering. He provides comparable floor stretching on offense, but he is still strides ahead of Olynyk as a defender. Watch out for more of this lineup in October and November.
But the real competition came in the fourth quarter, as guys like R.J. Hunter, James Young, Jordan Mickey and Gerald Green were playing for their lives. It appears Young may be the one dead in the water. He came in first for the closing lineup, quickly followed by Hunter. But after a slew of mistakes on both ends and the Celtics down a possession, Stevens subbed Gerald Green and Jaylen Brown back in for Young and Tyler Zeller midway through the fourth.
For his part, Hunter drew four fouls during a three-minute Celtics drought. He made up for it with an impressive block on a drive that forced a turnover and kept the Celtics alive. They hammered back by pounding the Nets in transition, with the game culminating in a sweet behind-the-back Jaylen Brown pass on the break that set up a Jordan Mickey slam to win it.
Also, Amir Johnson did this….