1. When the Celtics defense is at their best, they switch everything, and they do it with little consequence. It might end up putting Kyrie Irving in some tough mismatches, but Boston is usually able to get out of those by scramming Irving out of the mismatch through a switch-back or jump-switch.
Early on against the Kings, none of that signature defense was present. It was concerning, because the Celtics looked like the same unit that the Clippers had shredded in the previous game. This time around Brad Stevens made some changes that cleaned things up a bit. The bigs started hedging a touch longer on pick and roll, but recovering back to their man versus switching. The weakside defender was brought over to help on the roll man. And Stevens made a couple of lineup adjustments that aided in the coverage changes. More on that later.
2. Beyond the early defensive struggles, the offense was stuck in the mud to start the game too. The ball started out moving, but Boston missed a bunch of open shots early. That started to trend towards guys trying to do it by themselves. As we’ve seen, that never goes well for the Celtics. Fortunately, they snapped out of it fairly quickly and got the offense on track. After having just five assists in the first quarter, Boston finished with 32 assists for the game on 49 baskets. That’s Celtics ball-movement at its best.
3. As he has all season, Jaylen Brown brought great energy to the game off the bench. Outside of Irving, he was Boston’s best player. Special shout out to Marcus Morris as well, as he played tough and looked like himself again.
Back to Brown, he scored 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including a stretch in the third quarter where he hit three-pointers on three consecutive trips as the Celtics took the lead for good. His confidence is soaring right now, and it doesn’t seem to matter to him if he starts of comes off the bench. Not everyone can adjust to that, so it’s big for Boston to have Brown playing so well, no matter his role.
4. Marcus Smart was questionable to play, as he’s dealing with the same illness that kept Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis out. You could tell, as he didn’t look quite like himself for portions of the game. He was a step slow and wasn’t collecting every loose ball. But he still made plays like this, where he stole the ball in the post and found a streaking Brown for the layup:
5. Sometimes it’s easy to take Kyrie Irving for granted, because he does so many spectacular things that they start to seem commonplace. When the Celtics had little going offensively, he and Brown helped keep the team within striking distance. Then those two were a big part of taking the game over. Irving’s ability to handle the ball in tight spaces and then finish in traffic is incredible, as seen on this play:
6. Then, when Irving draws the defense, he’s able to find his teammates for easy buckets. This is what happens on this transition play (which starts with Irving digging down for the loose ball!), as he set up Marcus Morris for the dunk:
7. One thing is always certain with the Celtics: outside of a couple of times a year, they always come back and make it a game. They rarely get down and stay down. The two plays above from Irving, and this one from Jayson Tatum, were part of Boston building a comeback:
Tatum gets the mismatch, takes his time and sets up Willie Cauley-Stein with the crossover and spin-move for the finish and the foul. That patience to set up the move, followed by the ability to finish through contact, is all part of Tatum’s growth towards being a consistent 20 points per game scorer.
8. Mentioned above that Stevens ran some different lineups out there and the biggest tweak was…well…going big. For a large chunk of the second half, as Boston made their run to take the lead and control of the game, Stevens went to Al Horford alongside Aron Baynes and then alongside Robert Williams. Sacramento was getting a lot of easy baskets inside, as well as collecting some offensive rebounds. Once Stevens went big, that all cleaned up quite a bit. Now that the roster is healthy and fully available, look for Stevens to do more mixing and matching the rest of the season. It’s all about finding what works for the playoffs now.
Also, it was great to see Williams contribute positively in high-leverage minutes. He hasn’t been able to do that much this season. It was good to see him take advantage when given the rare opportunity from Stevens.
9. After a really “blah” first half, Gordon Hayward stepped up big in the second half. He had a bad call go against him on a jumper from De’Aaron Fox and that seemed to ignite him. The very next play, Hayward went coast-to-coast for a layup to beat the buzzer and give the Celtics a lead they would never surrender. That shot was part of a 10 point second half for Hayward.
10. Kyrie Irving picked up his second triple-double of his career, and he earned it. He was all over the floor making plays. It wasn’t his best shooting-night of the season, but he made up for it by getting to the free throw line nine times. And he was active and engaged on defense, especially after the first quarter.
Leadership is often more about actions than words. Irving’s play since the game at the Warriors seems to show that he understands that. For Boston to be at their best, Irving has to lead the way on the floor. The rest will take care of itself.