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Bench steps up: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Knicks

Josh Richardson and Payton Pritchard outscored their reserve counterparts 43-3 in Boston’s win

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

1. After a couple of difficult years in Philadelphia and Dallas, Josh Richardson seems to have found a home with the Boston Celtics. Richardson scored a season-high 27 points, aided in part by hitting 5-of-7 three-pointers.

It’s the three-point shot where Richardson has made the most improvement. He’s up to 40.5% on the year, which is his best rate since he became a regular rotation player.

Richardson drilled three big triples in the fourth quarter. On this one, he uses the jab step to get the big man rocking backwards. From there, it’s rise and fire:

Same spot, different process, same result:

Then Richardson sealed it with yet another triple:

Beyond the shooting, Richardson made plays as a driver and he grabbed five rebounds, handed out four assists and snagged three steals. It was all-around terrific night for the reserve wing.

2. This game didn’t feature monster assist numbers, but Boston piled up 23 dimes on 42 buckets. That’s a greater than 50% rate and shows they are moving the ball well.

This first play has some good movement around the perimeter, capped off by Marcus Smart making a nice extra pass to Robert Williams:

Boston got a handful of good looks out of plays where they “wheeled” around the backline of New York’s defense. On this one, Smart kept his dribble before finding Jayson Tatum on the cut. Tatum dumped it off to Williams for the easy one:

3. Jaylen Brown has become such a good shooter. Off-the-dribble pullups, spot-ups, contested shots. Whatever the shot, Brown can make it.

You can’t give Brown this kind of space anymore:

Then again, pressing up and contesting Brown doesn’t really work anymore either:

On this play, Nerlens Noel has to be conscious of Brown using the crossover to drive. Brown uses that threat to rock right into another pullup, as Noel is on his heels a bit:

4. As good as the start and end were for the Celtics, the third quarter was a mess. The Knicks blitzed Boston to the tune of 41 points in the period. Old friends Kemba Walker (17 points) and Evan Fournier (11 points) were the main culprits. Walker in particular was a surprise, as this was his first game action in three weeks, since being removed from the Knicks rotation.

Ime Udoka said postgame that he was “livid” about the lack of energy and focus on defense during the third quarter. He got into the team about it and Boston picked things back up in the fourth quarter.

The worry is that if this happened against a good team, you might not be able to recover for a win. Putting together four quarters of good basketball remains elusive for Boston this season.

5. One thing that was good to see was the Celtics sticking with it and working for baskets. This is a great cut by Jaylen Brown, but a better block by Nerlens Noel. The good part is Brown sticks with it and gets the hoop:

This is a big play by Robert Williams, considering time and score. He reads his man has gone to help on Brown’s drive. That leaves Williams to clean it up:

On this drive, Jayson Tatum misses after some contact. Instead of throwing his hands to the heavens for a call that will never come, Tatum sticks with it and tips it in:

After they let the officiating throw them off against the Golden State Warriors the night before, Boston played through the rough patches here and got some needed baskets.

6. Speaking of Robert Williams, he was Boston’s only effective big in this game. Due to some foul trouble, he only played 29 minutes, but they were good ones. Williams put up 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds (four offensive). He also had his this simple, yet smart and effective assist to Jaylen Brown:

Williams’ feel for the game is off the charts. He just needs to slow down a little bit on occasion, but that will come the more he plays.

7. The Celtics need Al Horford and Grant Williams back as soon as possible. Not just because both are good rotation bigs, but because it should put Enes Freedom back into the “break glass in case of emergency” role.

Freedom’s final stat-line from this one may not look bad. Heck, he was +13, while Robert Williams was -4. But that’s a great example of single-game plus/minus not being a great indicator of play.

Freedom’s defense is a liability, but that was known. What’s more concerning is that his hands don’t seem the same. It used to be that if he got his hand on a ball, it was his. Now, he regularly fumbles passes or rebounds. Not sure if something is wrong, or if he’s just slipped, but it’s a very clear thing each time he plays.

8. One night after Aaron Nesmith (who was good again on defense and on the boards) made the most of his increased playing time, Payton Pritchard did the same. Pritchard broke out of a season-long slump with 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc.

After he hit a little floater to get going, Pritchard had this nice pullup banker over Kemba Walker:

This is a heady play. Pritchard sees the paint is getting congested. He sneaks off to the corner, where Marcus Smart finds him for an open three:

On this one, Pritchard against shows good court-sense. He initially spaces deep as Brown drives. Walker drops off Pritchard to double-team Brown. Then watch as Pritchard makes it easy for Brown by relocating to where he can get the pass for the shot:

It was a good night for the Celtics second-year guard, and a needed one for his confidence.

9. In this space, we’re often criticized for…well…not criticizing Jayson Tatum enough. In an effort to combat that, here’s two clips where Tatum made bad plays that really could have cost the Celtics down the stretch.

First, this is really lazy defense. Julius Randle is going to his weak-hand and Tatum just gives him the lane all the way along the baseline to the rim. As Brian Scalabrine said in the clip “It’s rare to see Tatum get beat off the dribble like that”:

This is just a horrendous turnover. There’s no chance this pass is ever getting wherever Tatum intended it to. It’s probably headed for Aaron Nesmith in the corner, but Enes Freedom wasn’t catching it on the block either:

Now, it’s nitpicky to some extent, because Tatum played fairly well. But he’s Boston’s star and should be held to a higher standard. Plays like the two above aren’t good if they happen early in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter of a close game, they feel even worse.

10. The Celtics are yet again back to .500. It’s a fairly light upcoming week schedule-wise. Boston welcomes equally disappointing Philadelphia to town on Monday, then it’s a home matchup against the surprising Cavaliers on Wednesday. After that, it’s off to Milwaukee for the Christmas Day showdown against the champs.

The next few games are all winnable. The 76ers have struggled, as has Boston. Cleveland is down two starters due to COVID. And the Bucks are a mess between injuries and illnesses. It’s another week full of opportunity for the Celtics. Can they seize it?