After what seems like an eternity, the Boston Celtics will play their first game of the new season tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers. Win or lose, sink or swim, we'll learn some good lessons about this team's roster construction and how interim head coach Joe Mazzulla envisions his team playing.
The 76ers are a tough team to face on Opening Night. Joel Embiid and James Harden are bona fide stars in the NBA, they've improved their rotation with the additions of P.J. Tucker, DeAnthony Melton, and Danuel House and are out to prove they're ready to contend for a championship. Oh yeah, they're also a fierce rival, so there's that to contend with, too.
Containing Joel Embiid
In both games against the Toronto Raptors, the Celtics struggled to control the glass on both sides of the floor and, at times, struggled to own their space when boxing out. Without Robert Williams on the floor, Boston doesn't have an explosive presence that can bail them out of a pickle. So, we return to the 'rebounding by committee' approach that became all too common throughout the Brad Stevens coaching era.
"It's an area that hurt us. We need to be better in that area collectively. That's something that we've addressed and is something we have to make up as a group, so different guys have to step in, and we all have to get in there and get rebounds," Al Horford told CelticsBlog's Bobby Manning.
Unfortunately, you can't guard Embiid by committee. I mean, you can barely guard him at all. Instead, your attention shifts to limiting everyone around him and forcing Embiid to carry the weight of an entire offense on his shoulders — he can't score enough points to win a game on his own.
Here's where rebounding comes into the equation: if Embiid dominates the glass, he could begin kicking the rock out to the corners. If Boston's defense has collapsed to take away the boards, there will be some easy buckets on the menu.
There's no easy answer here. You're either going to accept Embiid will eat on the boards and most likely convert second chance opportunities at a significant clip or work to limit those rebounding opportunities and live with the results if you fail to secure the rock. Neither of those options sounds appealing to me.
However, if pressed, I would always choose limiting those around Embiid, forcing him into a ridiculously high usage role, and banking on him running out of stream throughout the game. Of course, you still want to play physical on him, and the Celtics have enough big bodies for that, while we could also see Mazzulla asking his guards to 'Veer Back' onto him when switching, potentially giving him the mismatch in the hope that he gets into foul trouble early.
Grant Williams watch
It's officially official: Grant Williams will be entering restricted free agency next summer, which means he's now playing for a payday, and that could be both a good and bad thing. Last season, Williams became an integral member of the rotation because of his versatile defensive presence and incredible shooting in the corners. In the preseason, the Tennessee native has also shown improvements when attacking close-outs and using floaters to beat rotating defenders.
Yet, the question is, can Williams remain true to his role? Or will his current contract situation edge him towards trying to do too much?
Suppose Williams continues to play at his current level and operates in a specific role for Boston. In that case, he gives the second unit a reliable shooting and defensive presence, which holds value throughout the NBA. But, if he decides to try and seize the narrative around what he's capable of doing, that might not be too helpful to either party.
In all honesty, I don't expect the lack of a rookie extension to alter how Williams approaches the game, at least not in the mid-to-long term. But in his first game after failing to secure the bag? Yeah, there's a chance we might see the occasional possession of hero ball, and against a 76ers team that's now far more defensively versatile, that should be concerning.
Like it or loathe it, the Celtics will run a ton of small-ball lineups this season, primarily due to their lack of size across the board and the upside it gives the offense. Mazzulla wants his Celtics team to play at a higher pace than last season, and the best way to do that is to have ball handlers 1-through-4 with a versatile big manning the middle.
"I think last year we thought defense first, and obviously, you have to do that. But now, with our skill, we can kind of think offensively as well. So, just a bit more balance and what gives our team the best opportunity to win," Mazzulla said.
Of course, what you gain in offense, you give up in defense, and that's where finding a balance comes into play. Yet, against a team that boasts a force of nature like Embiid, it's going to be interesting to see how a smaller lineup pays dividends because unless they can force the hulking big to abandon the drop and come out to the perimeter, it's going to be slim pickings around the rim.
Perhaps we’ll see Tatum man the 5 again, or maybe we get the ball-handling lineup of Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, and Horford for stretches. Regardless of how Mazzulla manages his rotations, it’s going to be interesting to see how Boston sinks or swims against a robust Philadelphia team that can call upon their own small lineup or counteract things with the implementation of Embiid.
As an aside, there’s also going to be plenty of eyes on how deep into his bench Mazzulla goes, and what that could mean for Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser — two of the better shooters on the roster. Is the interim head coach willing to sacrifice some ball handling and/or defense in order to give the Celtics a significant boost to their floor spacing? And will we see Noah Vonleh or Blake Griffin make their regular season debut? These are just some of the small questions that we’ll also have answers to in just a few hours.
A championship isn’t going to be won or lost on Opening Night. The NBA season is long and arduous, with swooping swings of momentum and stagnation for everyone. We’re all coming into this season with high expectations and a little curiosity following a summer of sweeping changes throughout the roster (for the second year running) and today will simply be our first true sample of what’s to come.
I know it’s easy to get swept up in the moment and believe that everything is coming up roses or that the season is over based upon the result of each game, but in fact, embracing the need for experimentation in the early months of the season is probably going to be better for you blood pressure, and is more aligned with what we will probably see.