There was no surprise with who Brad Stevens started in last night’s opener. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford is the most potent, versatile lineup the Celtics can start with because of their size and the fact that everybody can get their own shot. They’ll pose problems all year to opposing defense, particularly for Philadelphia.
The Celtics had only 21 assists against a good defensive team; the Sixers were third in defensive rating last year at 103.8. They shot poorly from the field (43.3% and 11-for-37 from behind the arc) and only got to the line fourteen times.
The 76ers start a bigger fivesome of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid. They’re all plus defenders, but when dealing with Boston’s speed on the perimeter, someone is going to get burned. Brett Brown tried to minimize the Celtics’ advantage with some unconventional match ups early.
Instead of pitting point guard vs. point guard, Brown assigned his best wing defender, Covington, on Kyrie. To some extent, it worked. Irving shot a dismal 2-for-14 from the field, settling on jump shots over the bigger Covington. And with Simmons covering Horford, it was Embiid’s responsibility to check Tatum.
We saw this match up this summer during Drew Hanlan’s pick up games. Both are clients of Hanlan’s and tested their arsenals against each other back in July. Embiid acknowledged their workouts after the game, playfully saying, “I was with him all summer. We played a lot of one-on-one, and I was kicking his ass. I love him. I love his game. I’m excited to play against him for a long time.” Well, last night, it was Tatum that took it to Embiid.
On the surface, these may look like selfish ISO’s, but with so much switching on defense, sometimes, the Celtics will just have to take advantage of mismatches when they present themselves. For much of the game, Boston didn’t even have to run much action to get Tatum faced up on Embiid and last night’s leading scorer delivered with 23 points.
It wasn’t just Tatum. Rozier danced on the Philly big man, too.
More than once.
Another match up the Celtics exploited was Brown vs. the 76ers’ bench guards. Jaylen is a solid 6’7 where as T.J. McConnell is 6’2 and J.J. Redick is listed at a surprising 6’4. Whenever either guard bodied up Brown, he’d take them into the paint and used the post game that he worked on in the off season to punish them on the block.
Here, he posts up the smaller Redick, draws a second defender in Simmons, and Simmons lazily recovers onto Marcus Smart but not before Smart hits the 3.
In transition, Brown targets McConnell and immediately takes him into the key for the fall away.
It’s not the most beautiful basketball to watch, but as we saw in the playoffs last year, it’s a necessary evil. Defenses are willing to switch on all screens and player movement and will live and die on players scoring one-on-one. There will be nights when it’s Irving or Hayward that have the edge over their defender. Last night, it was mainly Tatum and his team-leading 17 field goal attempts.
As Stevens noted, “our strength of our team has to be our depth.” That’s more than just about how many talented players are in his rotation; it’s also speaks to the variety he has at his disposal. It’s why he can start Aron Baynes in the second half and neutralize Embiid’s size on the baseline. It’s why Terry Rozier can play so amped and scare second units. Nine players played between 19-29 minutes and had mini-impacts throughout the game. Game #1 is in the books and even after a miserable shooting night and the stars underperforming, the sum was greater than its parts.