1. With Jaylen Brown on the shelf due to a back bruise, Brad Stevens called upon Marcus Smart to start. Smart joined Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris (making his second straight start) in the opening lineup. Smart had a major impact as a starter. Of course, he was great on defense. What was unexpected was his impact on the offense. With Smart starting, Boston played Irving off the ball a lot more than usual. That threw the Pelicans defense for a loop and helped open up some additional opportunities for the Celtics offense.
2. Last season Boston had great success hunting mismatches. With Irving and Gordon Hayward injured, the Celtics didn’t have a singular offensive talent to rely on. Instead they relentlessly worked to find whoever had the best matchup to attack. With a healthy roster and the younger players having developed their offensive games, Boston has relied on talent versus scheming this year. To put it kindly, it’s been uneven in terms of creating offense.
Against New Orleans, the Celtics went back to working mismatches. They targeted Nikola Mirotic repeatedly. Morris and Tatum attacked him off the bounce to the point that the Pelicans moved Mirotic to guarding Smart. In the first half, Boston moved Smart off the ball, but made it so Mirotic still had to be involved. On this play, they ran an Irving/Horford pick and roll, defended by Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. It was a middle pick and roll, but slanted to the strongside. Teams never help off strongside shooters, where Tatum and Morris were stationed. This means Mirotic has to help on Horford on the roll, which is a predictable win for the Celtics, as Horford scores an And-1:
3. On the other end of the floor, Horford and Aron Baynes played terrific defense on Davis, who is off to an MVP-caliber start this season. This was Horford’s best game of the season on both ends. He scored 12 points in the first quarter, on his way to 20 for the game, and was also great on defense. He moves his feet so well against mobile bigs that coaches, in both the NBA and college, use Horford as an example to teach young bigs how to defend on the move.
We all know Horford is great. Baynes on the other hand doesn’t get as much recognition for the work he does on that end, outside of games against Joel Embiid. He also played Davis really tough. Baynes was able to move his feet, but also use his strength to throw Davis off-balance. This play is an example of that, as Baynes uses his feet to stay in front and then his size and strength to contest:
4. Morris deserves some love too. Sometimes he goes in to a mode where he decides to carry the team. When Morris is off, this goes poorly and the Celtics falter. But when he’s on, he’s about as good as anyone. He scored 19 points, many of them to quell runs by the Pelicans. But his best work was on the glass. Morris grabbed 11 rebounds, seven defensive and four offensive, and drew three fouls during rebounding action when he had position. That work on the glass helped the Celtics to 14 offensive rebounds, which came in a game where Boston shot nearly 50 percent from the floor.
5. One of the keys to the Celtics defense is their ability to switch everything. That’s pretty evident even to a non-sophisticated eye. But looking a little deeper is to appreciate Boston’s ability to execute switch-backs and jump-switches. One of the key players with this skill is Smart. Smart regularly scrambles weaker defenders, like Irving, out of bad matchups. He did this several times against the Pelicans. It’s hard to pull your eyes off the ball when watching games, but peek away on occasion. Some of the best stuff Boston does on defense happens away from the ball.
6. Tatum has had his struggles in his sophomore year. But he’s coming back around over the last few games. His offensive decision-making has been better. This game was a good example. Tatum was just 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, but they were all good looks. In the second half, he hit 6-of-8 and scored 15 of his 20 points.
One other thing was his effort on defense. He was a big part of holding New Orleans’ wings in check. This effort against E’Twaun Moore in transition is a great example of Tatum using his physical gifts to get back in a play he was initially beaten on:
7. The Celtics also unlocked Horford as a playmaker in this game. He did a lot more ballhandling around the perimeter than he has in most games this season. That helps open up Boston’s offense. There aren’t many centers who can make this pass:
8. Coming into this game, the Celtics were among the worst teams in the NBA at scoring points in the paint. The Pelicans were the NBA’s best. Boston attacked the paint on a more regular basis against New Orleans than usual. Part of that was going at Mirotic on a regular basis, but it was also just a change in mindset to get the ball inside.
On defense, the Celtics focused on limiting Davis, but were solid protecting the rim against drives as well. All of it led to a +8 advantage on points in the paint, which was an unexpected contributor to the road win.
9. In addition to protecting the paint, Boston had active hands all game. They piled up 14 steals and forced 22 turnovers overall. The Celtics also had multiple deflections and tips to keep loose balls and rebounds alive. It was a performance reminiscent of the Boston teams of the last few years.
10. The Pelicans made a run in the fourth quarter, mostly because that is what NBA teams do. New Orleans cut it to a six-point game early in the final frame. Unlike most games this year, the Celtics had an answer. They stuck together, played as a team and moved the ball, and they were rewarded with good shots over and over down the stretch.
Part of that staying together was scheme from Stevens. The Pelicans again put Mirotic on Smart, but tweaked it by keeping Davis home in the paint. Stevens adjusted to the adjustment by making Smart the pick and roll ballhandler. This made Mirotic have to defend the action. It also created some open shots for Horford late in the game. One further wrinkle was using Irving as the screener. That was a new one and something to watch for in future games, as Boston had a lot of success with those actions.