As we approach the final game of the pre-season, we already have some notion of what type of team Joe Mazzulla wants the Boston Celtics to be in the coming months, although, we certainly haven’t seen his full vision at this early juncture.
So far, we know Mazzulla wants Boston to push the pace, move the rock like a game of hot potato, cut relentlessly, and play an aggressive brand of touch defense. What we don’t know, is how Mazzulla plans to deploy his rotations, his go-to sets for early and late offense, his ATO playbook, or whether his commitment to the minutiae will resonate with his seasoned roster.
“I just think that the further along you get, its easier to focus on the bigger picture. I think at the end of the day, regardless of its game 6 of the NBA finals or the first game of the night, it always comes down to ‘can you execute the fundamentals and can you execute those details?’ If we can keep that (focusing on the minutiae) as a habit, it can help us down the stretch.”
We’re not going to learn the answers to all of our questions in yet another pre-season game, far from it actually. However, we will get another look at the Mazzulla-led Celtics, and hopefully, we can answer some of our shorter-term thoughts.
Here are my three tending topics heading into the game against the Toronto Raptors.
Luke Kornet Minutes?
Seeing Luke Kornet return to the rotation projects to be a significant indicator of what to expect in the coming season — assuming Boston utilizes their full-strength roster against Toronto. You see, without Kornet in their rotation, the Celtics have switched to a single-big line-up, allowing room for additional ball-handlers and scorers on the wings while also opening up additional minutes for guards and wings who might usually be deeper in the rotation.
So, if Kornet is healthy and ready to go, the first thing we should be looking for is how the Celtics line up to start the game.
Secondly, it will be interesting to see how the offense flows with Kornet on the floor. A slower big man with a perimeter-based offensive game, Kornet will ensure the floor is spread for Boston to execute their drive-and-kick predicated offense, while also providing additional room for off-ball screening actions.
Will Toronto look to force Kornet onto the elbows or low block and force him to impact the game from there? Or will they live with the lack of interior presence and trust their lengthy, athletic defenders to limit penetration in a similar way as the Miami Heat? And finally, how will Kornet impact Boston’s ability to play at pace? Will they use him as a trailer? Or look to slow the ball down in the half-court and allow him to flow into his screening actions?
We’ve all known that Kornet is set for a significant role within the Celtics rotation this season, but now that time is drawing near, it’s going to be incredibly interesting to see how he affects the team’s offensive slow. Defensively, things are a little easier to predict — he will play drop coverage on screens and look to protect the rim with his size and length.
Dealing with disruption
For a team as talented as the Celtics, dealing with a defense that simply tries to contain the first and second action is child play, but as we saw on October 5, the Raptors aren’t content with containing actions. Instead, Nick Nurse wants his team to play the role of disruptor, forcing broken play after broken play, canceling screens, and forcing teams to play out of the scramble as often as possible.
Last season, Boston was well-equipped to deal with this form of defense by the end of the regular season and relished the battle that came with overcoming disruptive teams, often pounding the ball inside and turning the tide by forcing rotations and collapses. There hasn’t been much roster turnover this summer, so it’s logical that the Celtics will continue to endure these trickier games, where bodies leave the court full of cuts, scratches, and bruises.
However, Toronto is a physically imposing team, capable of playing bully ball from start to finish, so this is the perfect time for the Celtics to set the tone for the upcoming season and prove they won’t wilt when a couple of possessions fall to pieces, as they inevitably will at some point, because that’s what led to their slow start last year.
Heading into the final game of the pre-season, both Sam Hauser and Noah Vonleh will have something to fight for. Hauser will be clawing for a significant role within the Celtics rotation this season, and judging by his performances thus far, is more than ready to be a consistent figure off the bench. Whereas Vonleh is clawing for his NBA future and may feel that one more big performance off the bench is all it will take to secure a contract for the upcoming season.
Of course, there is a difference between hunting your own looks to the detriment of the team and shining within the flow of the offense, and for both Hauser and Vonleh, that’s a fine line they will need to tow throughout the 48 minutes of tonight’s contest — assuming they get some run on the court.
Furthermore, poor performance shouldn’t be enough to dispel the momentum they have put together over the past three games, but in the NBA, sample size is everything, and a poor performance at the final hurdle will certainly give the front office and coaching staff some additional food for thought.
For what it’s worth, I’m super high on Hauser earning himself a role this season, whereas Boston’s current roster construction makes me a little lower on Vonleh’s ability to 1. earn a contract, and 2. see any significant minutes on the floor if he does sign with the team.
It will be interesting to see how much run the core group gets tonight, as Mazzulla will undoubtedly have his eye on the season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers on October 18. But, there’s something to be said about keeping guys in rhythm and helping them work through their early-season hiccups.
Overall, though, the game against Toronto should be a fun one, with two teams who always bring their best set to face off against each other — and in a game where the result simply doesn’t matter, there will be plenty to keep an eye out for throughout the night.