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Role players come up big: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Raptors

Boston got big nights from their non-stars to improve to 2-0 on the preseason

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

1. At this point, it’s well-known that Jayson Tatum is an elite scorer. Ime Udoka is challenging Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, to be playmakers for others. For Tatum, that evolution started a couple of years ago, right before the 2019-20 season paused. He started to read traps better at that point. Now, Tatum is reading straight double teams quicker than ever.

This pass comes right into Al Horford’s shooting pocket when Tatum draws the double:

On this play, there’s all sorts of good stuff. Tatum draws the double, but watch the other players. Horford cuts late, which sucks in the corner defender, because they can’t rotate. Robert Williams stays in the dunker spot, which occupies his defender from picking up Horford’s cut and allows Williams to act as a natural screener. As Horford cuts, Marcus Smart lifts to the top of the key, one pass away, to take his defender with him. After all that action, Romeo Langford ends up with the wide-open corner three:

2. Speaking of Romeo Langford, these preseason games have been a big step forward for him. He’s looked confident and his jumper looks smooth. Langford said that having a summer to work on his game, instead of recovering from surgery, was huge for him. That could be parlayed into a bigger than expected role.

3. Al Horford had a big night, as Ime Udoka went with a double-big lineup to open the game. Horford’s shooting and passing help the offense keep moving. This is a gorgeous find to Grant Williams, who made a late-clock run to the rim:

Horford has also shown that he’s got plenty left in his legs. Somewhere, Tommy Heinsohn lost his mind with glee while watching this sequence:

4. Last season, Brad Stevens said he used the double-big lineups out of necessity. This year, Ime Udoka can use it because it’s a good pairing. Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson never quite fit, because neither was enough of an offensive threat to offset the other. And neither player was overly good at holding their own on the perimeter.

Horford and Williams are different players, but both can pass and move. Horford can space with his shooting, while Williams is one of the best rim threats in the league. And defensively, both can hold their own on most perimeter players on a switch. Look for that pairing to get significant run together, and to possibly open a lot of games as well.

5. For the most part, the Celtics main rotation players have looked pretty good. The lineups that feature a lot of bench players have had some struggles. That’s fairly predictable, and probably won’t be seen all that often in the regular season.

One place where you can see guys still figuring things out is with switches. When Boston had a special defense under Brad Stevens, their off-ball switching was impeccable. They regular scrambled out of mismatches before the defense could find them.

Here, Grant Williams tries to scramble Romeo Langford out of the post against Precious Achiuwa. It’s the right call, but poorly executed. Either Williams left too early, Langford left too late, or a combination of both, but the result was a wide-open Fred VanVleet:

6. One of Payton Pritchard’s improvements this offseason was trying to become a better shooter off the dribble, especially out of pick-and-roll. As a rookie, Pritchard was a spot-up shooter, albeit with incredible range, or he drove all the way to the rim. This is a good look at him adding a pullup jumper to his game:

7. Building a roster is about the GM knowing what the team needs to fit how the coach wants to play. Ime Udoka wants to incorporate more off-ball movement from his players. Brad Stevens said the Celtics rated Juancho Hernangomez as one of the best cutters in the league. This play shows that happy marriage:

8. If you’ve played competitive basketball, you’ve run the 2-on-1 fastbreak drill. The idea is to get the defender to commit to the ballhandler or the lane-filler. Aaron Nesmith draws that commitment and finds Grant Williams for the layup. It’s a good outlet pass off the steal to start the break from Josh Richardson too:

9. Grant Williams has said he lost significant weight to play quicker and to be more explosive. In these clips, you’ve seen him dunk off a cut, run the floor for a layup and here’s Williams getting a great recovery block at the rim:

10. The last handful of clips feature bench players for the Celtics making plays. This season’s roster has a good mix of reliable veterans, as well as developing young players. Last year’s group was overly reliant on young players, especially when the vets proved they didn’t have it. That’s a clear sign Brad Stevens felt the team needed a makeover behind their main players. This mixture should pay dividends in a long season.