1. Sometimes in the early weeks of the NBA season, we need to reframe expectations. Sometimes a team isn’t a good as we thought they would be. Sometimes a team is much better than we thought they would be.
In this case, we knew the Cleveland Cavaliers would be good. They were close to being a good team last year, and the Donovan Mitchell addition was expected to lift them to that status.
But simply “good” might be underrating this Cavs team some. They have all the components to be very good and to contend in the Eastern Conference.
It’s for that reason, that this is a disappointing loss for the Boston Celtics, but not a bad loss for Boston. Yes, it would have been nice to see the Celtics hang onto one of the double-digit leads they built, but it’s a “game of runs” as they say. And it would have been nice to see Boston execute better at the end of the game. That makes this a loss, but it’s not a bad loss. These aren’t the same old Cavs.
2. Derrick White is kind of the silent starter for Boston. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the stars. Al Horford is the veteran leader. Marcus Smart does Marcus Smart stuff. Even sixth man Malcolm Brogdon is shiny and new. So, it’s easy for White to be overlooked. But he just keeps contributing.
The Celtics are running off nearly 50% of defensive rebounds this season. That’s a very large number. Plays like this terrific hit-ahead by White to Brown have been commonplace thus far:
It’s early, but White’s shot looks much improved. He’s hitting 42.3% of his three-pointers, which is easily a career-best. As opposed to last year, when White was a little unsure of where to go in Boston’s offense, he’s hunting the corner three here. He slips the screen and flares to the corner on the catch. This is good stuff:
White is one of the best rim-protecting guards in the NBA. He was consistently called out for that skill while with the San Antonio Spurs, and he’s carried it over to Boston. This is outstanding help defense to block Donovan Mitchell at the rim:
3. We don’t want to bury this any deeper, so we’re going to cover it here…What is Joe Mazzulla’s aversion to calling timeouts?
Mazzulla has said he prefers to let players play through it, which was also a hallmark of Brad Stevens. But Mazzulla has taken Stevens’ patience on the sidelines to a whole new level.
Midway through the third quarter, it took a 10-0 Cleveland run over 2:20 period for Mazzulla to call a timeout. At that point, Boston had lost almost all of a 12-point lead.
Stevens was loath to call timeouts to quell runs too. He preferred to hoard his timeouts for end-of-quarter, -half and -game situations. Mazzulla isn’t even doing that.
If a team has more than two timeouts remaining at the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter, they lose any remaining timeouts above two. In all seven games the Celtics have played so far, Mazzulla has lost at least one of his use-it-or-lose-it timeouts. Even if he doesn’t need to stop the game for any sort of run-related reason, those are timeouts he could use to give his players a valuable rest. Especially late in close games.
Maybe it’s just a learning thing, but timeout usage, or lack thereof, has been one of the real standout issues for Mazzulla early on.
4. Grant Williams is showing off new skills seemingly every game. His off-the-dribble game has taken a major leap forward. That’s mostly stood out with Williams attacking closeouts, but this is a nice move in transition to spin for the score:
We’ve harped on how hard teams close out to Williams now. He’s been driving those with regularity to open the season, but this is a nice shot to have in the mix too:
5. Without Robert Williams, the Celtics have to find different ways to protect the rim. Al Horford is doing his thing, but others are chipping in too. We showed you Derrick White, and Marcus Smart regulary makes plays by challenging shots or taking charges, as do Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams and some others. But the biggest leap has come from Jayson Tatum.
The Celtics' switching defense is still ironing things out, so free runs to the rim like this one from Kevin Love are happening more than we are used to. It was good to see Tatum recognize it and then make a Rob-like play at the basket:
Later, Tatum stepped in from the perimeter to swat away this Donovan Mitchell drive:
Tatum’s excellent offense has always caused his defense to be overlooked. That started to change in last season’s playoffs. Now, it feels like Tatum is going to get recognized for his work on both ends this season.
6. The Cavs are huge in terms of interior defense. Both Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are 7-footers with good quickness, length and defensive IQ. That makes Cleveland hard to score on inside.
However, Boston missed eight makeable layups, including six when neither Allen nor Mobley were in the area. That’s 12-16 points left off the board in a one-point loss. That stings.
7. At the end of regulation, Jayson Tatum showed why he’s made the leap from All-Star to All-NBA and how he’s making another leap to MVP candidate right in front of our eyes. But let’s flashback first.
In the bubble, this happened to Tatum in Game 1 of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals:
Tatum made a good drive, but Bam Adebayo made the game-saving play.
Against the Cavs, Tatum was not going to be denied on a similar play:
It’s a throwback Brad Stevens ATO from Joe Mazzulla here. Stevens used this action for Isaiah Thomas all the time, where he’d let Thomas get a running start from the backcourt before catching the ball and making a play.
It’s a spot-on pass from Marcus Smart as Tatum sprints by Dean Wade. From there, it’s all Tatum making the play. For what it’s worth, Tatum was definitely fouled on this play too and should have shooting an and-1 free throw.
On the Cavs ensuing possession, Tatum made another MVP play. He and Jaylen Brown perfectly execute the switch. Then Tatum takes the hit from Donovan Mitchell and doesn’t let him turn the corner to the baseline. That forces the step-back jumper, which Tatum sends right back where it came from:
MVP stuff by an MVP candidate. (Which makes the real endgame all the more frustrating, but more on that in a bit.)
8. This space is very fond of saying “Marcus Smart does Marcus Smart stuff”. Sometimes that stuff is really helpful for the Celtics, like drawing an offensive foul from Jarrett Allen. Sometimes it’s stuff like trying to bait the referees for a second straight play and taking an absolutely terrible shot:
We take the good with the bad with Smart, but he has to be better in that spot.
9. The Celtics were in the NBA Finals last year. They aren’t a young team still finding themselves anymore. Mistakes like this can’t happen:
Brown needs to get this rebound and immediately call timeout. There’s not enough time for a rush up the floor. But it’s not all on Brown. Everyone, from his teammates to Joe Mazzulla, waits a beat too long to call for a timeout.
Was it a huge deal in the grand scheme of things? Not really, but it cost Boston a second timeout (good thing Mazzulla hoards them!) to be able to advance the ball. That made it so the Celtics couldn’t get a look at how the Cavaliers were going to defend the final possession.
Mostly, this is just something Boston should be well past at this point in their growth curve as a team.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately!), there are no good clips of the Celtics last shot. Jaylen Brown got an OK look, but an 18-foot fallaway isn’t really the shot you want in that spot.
Worse, it came while Jayson Tatum was standing in the backcourt as some sort of decoy, based on the above action where he dunked on Jarrett Allen.
Ultimately, the ball should be in the hands of your best player to make a play at the end of the game. Maybe Tatum takes the shot. Maybe he passes it. But Tatum should be making the play. He’s the Celtics end-game guy. Using him as a very passive decoy helped to open up nothing here.
10. Boston now heads back home for a rematch with the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics fell apart in Chicago last week, similar to last year’s early-season collapse against the Bulls. From there, it’s a back-to-back with a short trip to New York to face the Knicks.
It’s imperative that Joe Mazzulla does something to start knocking minutes off the Celtics main players, and it has to start as soon as this weekend. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were both in the mid-40s in minutes again, while Al Horford was right at 40 minutes in this OT loss.
Even if it means another loss, maybe Horford shouldn’t play both ends to the back-to-back. At the very least, he shouldn’t go north of 30 minutes in either game. To a man, the Celtics talked about being sapped of energy in the 2022 NBA Finals. If they want to get back there and have the legs to finish the job this time, it starts with keeping minutes down in November. This is also where taking some of those hoarded timeouts will help too. Mazzulla has got to start stealing rest for his main guys where he can, or they’ll be burned out when the calendar flips to 2023.