Amir Johnson is having a hard time adjusting (Alex Kungu): The Celtics ended the game with a marvelous display of free-flowing basketball that lead to plenty of penetration, tons of open shots, and a smothering defense lead by a three-guard lineup. Though much will be made of the great finish, something to monitor has been the play of Amir Johnson. In his time in Boston, Johnson has had his fair share of disappearing acts due to a lingering ankle injury that most likely will follow him for the rest of his career. However, with the Celtics essentially trading out Jared Sullinger for Al Horford, Johnson has been asked to defend more in the post rather than on the perimeter, where he was a bit more comfortable playing last year.
The effects aren’t always evident when the Celtics play teams without a legit post big, but on nights like tonight, you can see how quickly he wears down. In games that Al Horford has played, Amir Johnson has never played more than 21 minutes. In the nine games Horford was out, Johnson played more than 21 minutes seven times. Of course, part of that may have been just the overall need to have him on the court, but during that time he also played started alongside Tyler Zeller, which allowed him to get out of the post and defend on the perimeter. It’s still too early to make a definitive statement, but it’s worth monitoring how Johnson holds up as the season goes on.
Development vs. Winning? (Keith Smith): With the game hanging in the balance in the third quarter, Brad Stevens made two subtle rotation changes. Instead of Kelly Olynyk and Jaylen Brown, he went to Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko. The Zeller change was incredibly positive, as he finished +8 on the night, with four rebounds and a big blocked shot. Jerebko kept the team afloat with a couple of big buckets at key moments. Then the IT&D lineup took over and extended the lead with a 10-1 run, and the game was over. But it was the rotation changes that put things in place for the rout to start in the first place.
And therein lies the challenge for Brad Stevens. In an ideal world, Stevens would be able to put the team in position to win while also developing younger players like Brown. But such a world doesn't really exist night in and night out in the NBA. If the Celtics want to win, Brown and the other youngsters might have to make way for veterans like Jerebko and Zeller. If the team wants to make sure it develops Brown, then winning might have to take a backseat. No matter what the choice, some Boston fans are going to be angry. Deep down, everyone wants to win as much as possible. But on the surface, many want to see the youngsters play. Winning today is fun, but getting the kids ready might lead to even more winning in the future. So, I put it to the fans: development or wins? Which do you prioritize? And no fence sitting! You can't have both. Let's hear it.
A-variety Bradley (Bill Sy): Since the return of Jae Crowder and Al Horford, Avery Bradley’s stat line has taken a little bit of a hit. In the two weeks that Crowder and Horford were out, AB averaged nearly 18 points and 9 boards on 16 shot attempts. The team is relying on him less during this road trip—he averaged 13 points per game on 11 shots with just a handful of rebounds in Detroit and Minnesota—but the improvement in his game is still evident.
Against the Nets, he tallied 22 points on a team-high 22 field goal attempts, but it was the variety in which those buckets came last night and every night since the season started that’s been impressive. For years, so much of Bradley’s offense came from spot-ups (where he was reluctant to pump fake and put it on the floor) or pin-down screens (where he was also reluctant to pump fake and put it on the floor). In Brooklyn, his entire repertoire was on display.
The stutter step, the back door cuts, the automatic corner pocket three—they’re all on display. Bradley is no longer just a mid-range catch-and-shoot shooter anymore. Now, his assist numbers are down from earlier in the year, but in his defense, he’s still 4th on the team in potential assists at 6.6; teammates just aren’t hitting shots. He’s still going to be a pest on D. He had five steals tonight en route to a 89.0 DefRtg. Thomas and Horford will be the obvious All-Star candidates in February, and Crowder and Smart will get credit for the gritty identity of the team, but Avery Bradley is the quiet, lead-by-example captain of this team.
The IT-Horford Pick & Pop—The Celtics’ New Go-To Play (Jared Weiss): One of the biggest hurdles for the Celtics under Brad Stevens used to be utilizing the bigs on the perimeter. For much of last season, they found great success with Kelly Olynyk raining threes from the elbow. They spent most of Jared Sullinger’s Celtics career trying to turn him into a similar asset, to no avail.
But one of the most valuable contributions Al Horford is bringing to the offense is his use in the pick-and-roll. Stevens finally has his second part of the 1-5 high pick and roll, giving the Celtics the reliability and freedom to always have that simple yet unstoppable play at hand.
It’s all in the power of the booty. Horford uses his rump to set and hold screens as well as anyone since Kevin Garnett. He shuffles his feet, changes his angle and does whatever he needs to do to hold a screen without committing an offensive foul.
Opposing defenses are slowly discovering that zoning up or icing on an IT-AL PnR is a fatal mistake. Horford is able to navigate booty-first to clear out enough room for IT to get deep into the teeth of the defense. Right when they surround him with a trap, with even three defenders as we see below, he slips it back to Al for an open three.
These two plays in the middle of the third quarter keyed the Celtics’ 19-6 run, which put them in control of the game and set up the win over the Nets. It will continue to be the Celtics’ bread and butter throughout the season, especially when teams are active defensively and recovering to the corners when the Celtics’ motion offense is in full swing.
Horford’s ability to navigate the time-space of a parquet floor epitomizes why his basketball IQ could earn him a Mensa membership. He uses physicality, footwork and all sorts of sly trickery to make small openings last a lifetime. He is great at using a dribble handoff as a subtle screen, sticking his tuchus out to clear out the receiving teammate’s defender.
In this play, he flips to the other side after the DHO to initiate a quick pick and pop with Thomas. Horford holds the screen until Thomas is all the way around, which makes IT’s defender, Isaiah Whitehead, frantically try to catch up to Thomas. With Horford’s man, Brook Lopez, zoning up deep in the paint, there is nobody remotely near Horford to try to contest.
Horford gives Whitehead a little push as he goes by, just to throw more of Whitehead’s momentum toward the hoop and away from the top of the key. If Whitehead was able to recognize what was happening and try to recover back toward Horford, that love tap makes it just a little more difficult and gives Horford the extra half second he needs to get a clean shot off.
Naturally, it ends up with a wide-open Horford three.
When swinging the ball and moving at full speed wears the unit out, Horford can allow them to keep things simple and give the wings a break. It allows guys like Bradley and Crowder, who expend so much energy on defense, to get a crucial blow on the other end from time to time.
As we’ve seen with their injury history, those guys will need it. Horford is an incredibly balanced player that brings a center to this team in more ways than one.
Youth movement in full effect (Lachlan Marr): Boston gave plenty of play to their young guns in this game against the Nets. While Brown didn't get a lot of run, as noted by Keith, sometimes development can take a back seat to winning, especially with such a statement win like this blowout against the Nets. Nonetheless, Boston's second- and third-year guards, Rozier and Smart, got to see a lot of action. Smart essentially acted as the Celtics’ sixth man, and Terry settled into his role as the backup ball handler more with each game.
Smart was impressive, especially when playing in the small-ball unit alongside starters such as Horford, Crowder, Thomas and Bradley in the Celtics’ dominant stretch during the fourth quarter. And Rozier looked great as the go-to floor general for the second unit, maintaining momentum through steady defense and efficient offense.
The only issue I noticed was that the Celtics hit a dry spell when Thomas and Rozier were on the floor together. They just didn't seem to be able to find a rhythm working together. Of course it's only a small sample size, but it could prove problematic moving forward if two of Boston's best offensive guards can't find a way to work together.
On the other hand, Rozier and Smart seemed to mesh together almost perfectly when controlling the second unit. In fact, Rozier and Smart looked at their best when they were paired together. There's something about the pair's skill set that seems particularly complementary, with Smart's intensive, aggressive play working perfectly with Rozier's probing, more finesse-driven style.
Overall this was a great team win, and Smart and Rozier were able to act as key contributors. It must have been salt in the wounds for the poor Nets who, without rights to their own draft picks, know they're unlikely to have the same type of youth movement develop in Brooklyn anytime soon.