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That’s more like it: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Rockets

Boston got Ime Udoka his first win on the road in Houston

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

1. It seems silly to call the third game of the season a must-win, but this one had that feel for Boston. Coming off blowout loss in the home opener, with a road-heavy schedule staring them in the face, the Celtics needed this one. And they got it.

Turnovers were called out as a major key before this game. Boston got their ballhandling under control, as they gave it away 12 times. On the other end, they forced Houston to throw it away 20 times.

Mostly, the Celtics played with a high level of effort from the start. That was missing against the Raptors. Now, Boston has to sustain that for several games in a row.

2. While others featured with big nights, Jayson Tatum was Boston’s best player. That probably seems like an obvious statement, yet it wasn’t true in either of the Celtics first two games. In this one, Tatum got going early and helped set a tone.

On the first play of the game, Tatum got the deflection, saved the ball and sprinted out. Marcus Smart makes the nice pass and Boston is off and running:

After years of playing together, Tatum knows Daniel Theis can’t guard him in isolation:

At this point late in the first quarter, the Celtics were scuffling on offense. The Rockets were threatening to close the quarter up double-figures and it would have been “Here were go again”. It was good to see Tatum back his defender down on the block for a much-needed bucket:

3. As important as it is for Jayson Tatum to score, and it’s really important, he can set an example by making non-scoring plays too. This is a great block early in the second quarter:

This assist came off a broken play. Following the game, Ime Udoka was asked about what he said to Tatum and Udoka said he told his star, “Let me stop telling you what to do. I’ve never averaged 27 points per game, so I should just let you do what you do out there.”

4. Al Horford was the beneficiary of the pass above from Jayson Tatum. It was another strong game for Horford in his return to the Celtics. His rim protection has been a major bonus for the defense. It’s especially important on plays like this when Horford is switched onto a perimeter driver. He stays with Jae’sean Tate step for step and sends this shot back:

This play shows just how good Horford is feeling physically. Alperen Sengun throws a gorgeous set of moves at the veteran big man. Horford comes up with the strip-block and runs the floor for the and-1:

5. One early criticism of Ime Udoka was that his set plays on offense didn’t seem to be working. Boston ran some great stuff in this game. This first one is simple. But it shows the value of having bigs who can make long, on-time passes. Look at how spaced the floor is and where Grant Williams throws this pass from:

Here’s a play that starts with a somewhat similar look. But this time Grant Williams is working in the middle as a roller. Al Horford sets another killer screen for Jayson Tatum, and Williams finds him wide-open in the corner:

6. The other big early noise with Ime Udoka has been the Celtics rotations. Out of necessity, Udoka tweaked his opening lineup, as Jaylen Brown was out with some knee soreness. Udoka put Dennis Schroder in the opening group. That helped open up the playmaking a little bit more. In addition, it freed up some additional minutes for Payton Pritchard to take on-ball reps off the bench.

Udoka also tweaked the big man rotation. Al Horford came out early in each half for Grant Williams. Then, to bridge the first and second quarters, Horford came back in for Robert Williams. This change meant that there were almost no minutes where Grant Williams was on the floor as the lone big. That eliminated some of the size issues Boston dealt with in the first two games.

7. Speaking of Grant Williams, it’s time for some love for the third-year forward. Williams has been steadily solid in the Celtics first three games. He showed up earlier in the Takeaways with some nice passes, but Williams also tied his career-high with 18 points. This included hitting five three-pointers.

This is a good example of what Williams can bring as a pick-and-pop big. Houston has three defenders preoccupied with defending Dennis Schroder as the ballhandler and Robert Williams as the roll-man. That leaves Grant Williams open for three and he buries it:

Remember all that talk about effort? This is great effort from Grant Williams here. He sprints the floor to break up this play, which ends up going off Christian Wood for a turnover:

8. When Marcus Smart drives the ball, he primarily looks to pass. Payton Pritchard is a prober. He’s looking to get to his jumper or to find a pass. Dennis Schroder is a scorer. He wants to get in the paint to find his own shot. Plays like this have been missing from the Celtics attack for the last couple of seasons:

9. It wasn’t a night of big plays for Robert Williams, as Al Horford and Grant Williams carried the load up front. But this beauty had to make the Takeaways:

Dime Lord indeed!

10. The Celtics now head back east for a bit of a weird back-to-back against the Hornets. Charlotte has gotten off to the first 3-0 start in franchise history. They get up and down the floor and play a really fun style of offense. Boston can’t get caught sleeping, especially in transition. Getting back to .500 with a win over a hot team would go a long way towards erasing the worries from opening week.