In their final game of the preseason, the Celtics will look to get back on track in Cleveland. The stakes won’t be high. Irving (sore ribs) and Hayward (back) opted not to take flight over to Ohio. On the Cavaliers end, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, George Hill, and Kyle Korver will all be held out for rest purposes.
#Cavs will start Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Rodney Hood, Sam Dekker & Larry Nance Jr. tonight vs Celtics— Marla Ridenour (@MRidenourABJ) October 6, 2018
Before we get into some of the things to watch for tonight, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the biggest Celtics news of the preseason.
In case you haven’t heard, Kyrie Irving announced to Boston’s seasons ticket holders that he plans on re-signing with the Celtics next year.
.@KyrieIrving pic.twitter.com/afUtAVIgqx— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 4, 2018
The news was unexpected coming into camp because Irving opted not to make any commitments to the Celtics while he was asked multiple times in interviews while promoting his “Uncle Drew” movie. This lead to a summer of reckless speculation by the NBA community despite reports by Woj, Shams, Lowe, and Stein saying there wasn’t any talk of Irving planning his exit and that the Celtics were confident he’d re-sign.
Of course, people were quick to point out commitments nine months ahead of time aren’t set in stone, which is true, but that’s more of a blanket statement that you could apply to any situation that is agreed to but not finalized. What this does for the Celtics is take away the pressure to have to recruit Irving throughout the entire year. Teammates aren’t thinking about it in the back of their minds, Coaches don’t have to walk on egg shells when approaching him, management has some clarity, and Irving doesn’t need to worry as much about being overwhelmed by a daily round of free agent questions. This was reiterated by Al Horford:
A lot of the times, with the way that free agency’s been going the past few years, these guys are letting the drama build up and the media and the hype, and that’s all good stuff for TV and the fans for entertainment like I was engaged with LeBron [James] when everyone was like, ‘Oh, he’s going to the Lakers.’ You get engaged in that stuff. But when it’s for your team, you don’t want any of that, you don’t want none of that stuff. Unless somebody is coming to you. It was just nice that we got that out of the way and can focus on the season.”
With the Irving free agency chapter officially closed for the time being, the team can focus on more pressing matters like getting their chemistry right for the regular season. Here are some areas we can look to tonight for indicators of whether that can happen.
1. Team assists in the first three quarters
Usually, I think the individual assist stat is one of the more overrated statistics in basketball, but team assists in general do a pretty good job of telling the story of how well your team is moving the ball. Last year, the Celtics were in the middle of the pack at 22.5 apg, a year removed from being tied at third with the Rockets at 25.2. The best way to integrate new teammates offensively is keeping a free-flowing offense where guys are sharing the ball and scoring is balanced. Without Hayward, the team will most likely be starting the same 5 from last years postseason (Rozier, Brown, Tatum, Horford, Baynes) with some of the regular vets of the BWA. Stevens has already said that he plans on playing the regulars for at least three quarters so I'll be keeping an eye on the team assists during that frame as an indicator for how well the team has been moving the ball.
2. Horford, Baynes setting the tone defensively
Last season, the Celtics sported the best defense in the league on the backs of Horford and Baynes. The pair have quarterbacked a strong defense with the use of strong communication, an elevated understanding of what the other team is trying to do, and strong positioning. They aren’t flashy (hence their lack of mention in any All-Defense teams), but their work was the reason a team that was relying on rookies and second year players made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The pair will most likely get the start tonight or at the very least play a nice chunk of minutes together and I'll be looking to see how they set the tone defensively. It won’t necessarily manifest itself in the Cavaliers low scoring which I’m predicting will be the case regardless with virtually all their top core members sitting out, but the quality of shots the Cavaliers get will be an indicator of the defensive activity the team has, specifically in the three quarters the regulars will be in.
3. Mixing Rob with the regulars
This is something I'll continue to beat the drum on because I think it’s important. Williams game is maximized when surrounded by other plus playmakers and we’ll never know just how much he can contribute to the team this year unless they pair him with some of the regulars and see how he produces. Defensively, we’ve already gotten a glimpse of his ability as a perimeter defender and a rim protector:
Robert Williams is gonna make ya jump outta your seat from time to time. #Celtics pic.twitter.com/xWSpsHuYRW— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) October 3, 2018
He even sprinkled in a little passing and screen-setting that has raised some intriguing questions about his offensive potential. In order to maximize some of those offensive talents, it’s important that he is on the court more with some combination of Irving, Rozier, Smart, Horford, or Hayward. Of course, that’s a little harder tonight with two of those players out, but there will be still be plenty of opportunities to mix him in with regulars and see what his defense, rim-running, and passing ability can add to the parent club.
4. Tatum shot selection
I don’t think this one is serious, but it’s worth noting. In three games, Tatum has averaged 11 FGA and only 2.7 of those attempts have been from three. For reference, Marcus Morris has averaged 10.3 FGA and 5.7 of those attempts have been threes. Through three games, Morris has had better shot selection than Tatum. Gotta love preseason.
Tatum has had a few too many possessions where he opted for pull-up two’s rather than taking it to the rim or looking for a three. He’s been asked to be the scorer of the second unit which is something that will probably persist throughout the year. Tatum’s best stretches have come from playing within the offense such as his 16-point game against Charlotte where he scored 13 points in a little over 3 minutes by simply playing within in the offense.
The theme here will be Tatum continuing to understand that just because he’s the focal point of the offense, doesn’t mean it’s his duty alone to create his own offense.
5. Jaylen Brown as a playmaker
During Media Day availability, Jaylen Brown made it known that he had been working on his weaknesses, including making plays for others. That’s going to be hard to really showcase as the team is setup now because Brown’s role offensively is to space the floor and occasionally take advantage of mismatches. On a night like tonight, when some of the teams best playmakers aren’t playing, he’ll have a chance to show off some of his improved playmaking. That may not necessarily come in the form of big assists numbers, but it’ll be good to take note if he’s making the read rights when the Celtics are in their flex sets and how much he’s looking for shooters when he takes the ball to the hoop. Tonight won’t be the night we decide if he’s made improvements in that area or not, but it could serve as indicator for things to come.