Game 1 is in the books. The Boston Celtics dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers with a Vin Diesel-esque performance: Fast and Furious. Now, Joe Mazzulla’s team will face a well-oiled Miami Heat in what will be a second stern test in as many games.
Of course, Celtics fans should take solace that their season is already going better than their most fierce rivals out West, but then again, even the Detroit Pistons have more wins than the Los Angeles Lakers, so I’m not sure how much stock we can put in that at this point. Yes, I took a shameless jab, and yes, I'm unapologetic about it.
Miami’s offseason didn’t go to plan. Their core got a year older, they lost some key contributors in P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris and failed to bring anyone significant through the doors. But an Erik Spoelstra team is always well-drilled, disruptive, and hungry for success, so the Eastern Conference Finalists can’t be taken lightly.
As we head into game 2 of the new NBA season, here are my three trending topics to keep an eye on heading into today and throughout the contest.
Containing the stars
Joel Embiid had a night to forget on Opening Night. Boston peppered him with double-teams, frustrated him with steals, and tenderized him with contested jumpers, leading him to cut a frustrated figure down the stretch. Jimmy Butler is a different.
Butler has an unrelenting will and unwavering confidence. His impact as a slasher and facilitator cannot go unchecked, and his defensive intensity will ensure Boston’s wings have a difficult challenge.
Factor in Kyle Lowry’s impact on both ends, and the ever-impressive Bam Adebayo, and suddenly you’re reminded of why Miami was in the semifinals of the playoffs last season.
To begin this season, Mazzulla has asked Boston to run more of their offense through Al Horford, yet Miami has been doing that with Adebayo for years now. Elbow hand-offs, nail actions, and guards running ghost flares to generate looks off of their big man — Miami are masters are finding space in the half-court.
The Celtics' defense will need to be locked into their switching system if they’re going to limit Miami’s offensive flow, while being cognizant of giving the role players the attention they deserve. After all, Tyler Herro is the reigning 6MOY and Duncan Robinson can turn into the Human Torch in a jiffy.
Maintaining the pace
Playing a new style of basketball for a couple of preseason games and an Opening Night victory isn’t easy. The harder part is sticking to the philosophy when you find yourself in the trenches. Miami is one of the best defensive disruptors in the league and will look to force broken play after broken play. We saw Boston struggle with that type of defense against the Toronto Raptors throughout the preseason, but with a big win under their belts, and solid Opening Night performances from both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the roster has every reason to buy into this new play style.
If the Celtics can continue swarming players on defense, forcing errors, and then sprinting the floor on the break, they’re going to be incredibly difficult to contain. Simply put, Boston has too much youth, length, skill, and experience for most teams to handle, and while Miami is certainly a tough opponent, the Celtics can put the Heat’s older legs to the test over a 48-minute contest.
Sticking to the sets that saw success against the 76ers earlier in the week, committing to off-ball cutting and screening, and playing in a well-spaced offense, there’s no reason to believe Boston can’t continue the dominant points per possession statistic they put up against to begin the season. Cleaning The Glass tracked it as 132.6 points per 100 possessions.
Can Tatum & Brown stay on the same page?
Far too often, we’re speaking about a big night for either Tatum or Brown, rarely both. Yet, it's when the star wings perform in tandem that Boston is at its most potent, both offensively and defensively.
Playing at speed plays into both of their skillsets. For Brown, he can be at his slashing best, receiving a pass and finishing the play, either with a pull-up or rack attack, while Tatum’s ridiculous scoring profile will always be accentuated when the defense isn’t set to take away his lanes and shooting angles.
If Mazzulla’s willingness to play at pace can get both of the team’s star players playing off of each other, rather than with each other, then the rest of the NBA will need to take notice — because that could be the missing piece to the team’s NBA championship puzzle.
The Eastern Conference is staked this year, so there will be very few ‘gimmies’ this season. As such, we’re going to learn a lot about this team very quickly, and tonight’s game against the Heat will be another good learning tool for both the coaching staff and the fan base.
At such an early juncture in the NBA calendar, we shouldn’t be surprised if Mazzulla continues to experiment with his rotations and potentially with his starting five. Of course, it will be interesting to see if Payton Pritchard gets some playing time and if Sam Hauser has some plays run for him early to get him going.
Another interesting aspect will be if Noah Vonleh continues to get minutes over Luke Kornet, or if Mazzulla is legitimately rotating his backup big minutes depending on matchups.
That’s the beauty of the early season, we’re all learning about what's to come, and having fun while doing so. I do agree, though, that it will be more fun if we spend tomorrow talking about a Celtics victory.