Will the real Celtics please stand up? (Keith Smith): This game was a microcosm of the season so far. The Celtics have been almost two teams all year. The first is a group that plays no defense, especially inside, and takes questionable shots. The second is a team that scraps and plays with a ton of hustle and grit. They battle inside, despite being overmatched, and they share the ball on offense. Against Minnesota the first group played for most of the third quarter. Then the second group showed up, as the reserves rolled up a 17-0 run to start the fourth, and Boston never looked back.
The Celtics’ depth might be a little overrated in terms of night-to-night production, but they will battle and scrap with anyone. Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart hit the boards and got up into Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, making the Wolves uncomfortable. What they lack in skill they make up for in hustle and the willingness to sacrifice for the team. It might not always be pretty, especially with the backups, but it will probably be effective more often than not. And that is all that matters for Boston to be the team they want to be.
Is this a turning point? (Sean Penney): It took until the fourth quarter to do it, but the Celtics finally managed to do what we expected them to do against this young Timberwolves team. They tightened up their defense, using stops on that end to fuel a 19-0 run to open the final frame. Minnesota's confidence shattered down the stretch, to the point where Karl-Anthony Towns was the only one that looked comfortable taking a shot. Their hesitance led to bad shots and turnovers, allowing the Cs to pull off the comeback victory.
Al Horford had another strong day, scoring 20 points for the first time as a member of the Celtics, making great passes and blocking shots. Boston suffered a few disappointing losses while he was out of the lineup, but games like this show that you can't count this team out when they have his two-way presence to lean on.
Rozier shining in big moments (Alex Kungu): Terry Rozier is starting to find his groove in the second unit, and it could become a huge storyline for the development of the Celtics’ second unit. After a slow second half, Rozier was part of the unit that led Boston to a 19-0 run to begin the fourth. He was aggressive and purposeful on the offensive end, and he got after it on the defensive end, highlighted by a huge steal and slam that gave the Celtics their first lead. In all he finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. If you ask me, Stevens should have let him finish the game over a struggling Avery Bradley. In a team that’s still trying to find the identity of its second unit, Rozier’s development as an aggressor will be key to the Celtics playing the best they possibly can. Hopefully tonight is the beginning of some consistency.
(Bill Sy): Through most of the season and this game, the Celtics haven’t looked like themselves, but last night’s fourth-quarter performance could be the identity-defining run this team needed to remind them who they were and how they won last season.
It wasn’t a lineup that featured the instant offense of Isaiah Thomas, the grit and grind of Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, or the tool belt of Kelly Olynyk. No, tonight belonged to the Goonies, the upstarts, the young bloods of the Celtics bench. Anchored by Al Horford in the middle and Jonas Jerebko at the 4, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown rounded out a fivesome that turned a thirteen-point deficit into a six-point lead with defense.
Rozier grabbed all the post-game headlines with his spark-plug performance—one that’s been frankly indicative of his under-the-radar sophomore season—but it was Boston’s D and the depth that allowed them to play that defense that were the real standouts. Thibs relied heavily on his starting lineup (just like he did in Chicago), and by the fourth quarter they were gassed. That’s when the Celtics pounced.
At the end of the third quarter, Smart used an all-too-familiar refrain to describe the team’s play: “we’re getting punked out there.” That quickly changed. Whether it was Smart himself fighting through elevator doors to contest a three, multiple efforts to body up, box out, and gang rebound against a longer team, and get out and run on a turnover, the new Celtics were the old Celtics for twelve glorious minutes in Minnesota.
After the game, Rozier wasn’t talking about the twelve points he scored or the eight he tallied in the final frame. He talked about his defense: "I want to be the annoying guy that's always in the PG's ear, always in his face. Nobody wants to play a guy like that." That’s not just about Rozier recognizing his strengths or his role. That’s a young player who has found his identity through the team’s identity and, hopefully, vice versa.
A Star on the Floor (Bobby Manning): Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford had much in common Monday night. They not only shared 9-for-20 shooting lines, but they also were at the forefront of some of the Celtics' best stretches. Horford's defense and ball control were essential alongside the efforts of the Celts' bench in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, he raised the level of that bench unit, which struggled by itself throughout much of the game. Terry Rozier played his best during that stretch, as did Marcus Smart and Jonas Jerebko.
Then Thomas returned to the floor and sealed the deal in combination with Horford. Spreading those two out between different rotations has worked wonders for the Celts. At this point the bench hasn't been effective enough to run without the support of one of the team's two All-Stars. That of course would be a troubling trend long term, but it can be eased in the right direction with the help of Horford or Thomas playing with those groups. Health will also give the second unit more stability with time, as some from that group have been pressed into front-line service before this last weekend.
The Glue is Sticking: Inside The Al Horford Offensive System (Jared Weiss)
Before Horford returned to the floor, the Celtics often looked like they were taking turns running iso. Thomas and Bradley carried them, but when they were off the floor, the offense was a series of one-on-three desperation attempts.
With Horford back in the middle, that luscious ball movement that the team previewed on opening night is in full effect. He tied for a team-best five assists, which was a nice icing on his 20-point, three-block cake.
Horford is most useful when he gets double teamed. There are only about 20 or so players in the league that thrive in those situations. For him, it actually opens things up more, as he is surrounded by some of the best cutters in the league.
Avery Bradley is perhaps the best off-ball cutting guard in the conference. He sees when the defense is going to overload to the ball and knows where the lane is going to open. He hits it patiently and sneakily, going unnoticed until the ball is coming his way. We haven’t seen him dunk often, but he brings it when he needs to.
But it’s Horford who is always in control. He has that Bird-esque touch to the ball, able to make quick actions happen with the subtlest of movements. He can create when it looks like the opportunity is closing, almost inviting the incoming tide just to clear the waters beyond.
His touch pass to Smart was the type of play that made what looked a panic situation a controlled event. The entry lob from Thomas came short due to a good ice and trap by Gorgui Dieng and Ricky Rubio. Andrew Wiggins seemingly had the deflection, but Horford slyly dragged him down with his left hand while slapping the ball to Smart with the other.
Horford has a deep bag of savvy veteran tricks. Whether it’s the slightly moving booty screens he sets off of his dribble handoffs to curling shooters, or his jab steps to clear out easy 18-footers, he always has a quick and easy answer to every problem.
It looks like his return is solving even the Celtics’ hardest problems on both sides of the floor.