A tough loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, means the Boston Celtics are now 4-3 to begin the season. Now, with a game against the Chicago Bulls on Friday, Boston will need to be at or near their best if they want to avoid slipping to .500 over their first 8 games.
Chicago won the first meeting between these two teams, courtesy of a swarming defense, and some big moments from multiple guys across their roster. However, this is the NBA — every team drops games. Losing to a conference rival isn’t anything to be concerned about this early in the season but losing to them twic is far from ideal, as we saw against the Cavaliers.
So, with that in mind, and knowing the Celtics would like to regain some momentum at this early point of the season, here are three ways in which Boston could look to put a stranglehold on the game.
Finding their range
Against the Cavaliers, the Celtics shot just 26.8% from deep, despite taking 41 shots from beyond the perimeter. For a team that ranks 2nd in three-point attempts per game, first in three-pointers made, and 8th in three-point percentage, you would hope that their poor shooting form on Wednesday night was simply a bad night at the office.
When Boston and Chicago faced off on October 24, the Celtics shot 37.5% from deep, which is far more aligned with their statistics and gives you hope heading into tonight’s game. If the Celtics are going to lean into the deep ball and execute their five-out offense at a high level, they need to be making good on their shots. Otherwise, the defense is going to set up shop on the glass and limit Boston to single possessions throughout the contest.
If Joe Mazzulla can figure out ways to get his players into their actions early, and the Celtics continue to commit themselves to finding the open man via ball rotations and making the extra pass, then they should find themselves quickly snapping out of their one-game shooting funk to ensure they’re pressuring the perimeter against Chicago.
Pressure the big men
The Celtics rank 15th in the NBA for opponent shooting around the rim, allowing a 61.2% conversion rate on 25.4 attempts per game. However, If we cast our minds back to Opening Night, and remember how dominant Boston’s defense looked against Joel Embiid, the Celtics' struggles against opposing bigs becomes a bit of a head-scratcher. Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston’s defense was firing. Early traps, constant digs, and high pick-up points all saw the Celtics contain an MVP-caliber center — so clearly, when committed, they can do it again.
Nikola Vucevic isn’t Embiid, but as a three-level scoring center, he deserves a similar amount of attention from the defense. In their last meeting, Chicago utilized Vucevic in high pick-and-rolls, looking to bend the Celtics' defense on pick-and-pops, rolls to the rim, and decoy actions that found Vucevic ghosting into a post-up. All of those actions can be guarded, and regardless of whether Robert Williams is in the rotation or not, the Celtics have the personnel to execute a viable game plan to limit Vucevic’s impact.
Against Cleveland, we saw Boston situate one of Marcus Smart and Derrick White onto a big man, which gave their defense some additional flexibility in terms of switchiness and an ability to get big the hips and limit their direct rolls to the rim. If the Celtics can incorporate a similar scheme, and perhaps run some ‘veer back’ coverage on Vucevic, then his impact on this game should pale in comparison to what we saw from him on October 24.
Feed Jaylen Brown early
Oftentimes, it’s easy to forget that NBA players are humans, too. Missing a game-winning shot in overtime can easily knock your confidence, or potentially become a mental block. That’s why it makes sense to feed Jaylen Brown early and often, putting him in position to dominate early proceedings and develop a rhythm on the offensive end.
Last season, Brown became synonymous with the first quarter due to his hot starts and incredible ability to get downhill or score at will on mid-range pullups. It’s no secret that Boston requires both Brown and Tatum to operate at a high level if they want to make it back to the NBA Finals, and I’ve been vocal about the differences between playing with each other and off each other.
Allowing Brown to take control of the game early will help dispel any confidence issues or lingering memories of that final shot in overtime, while also emphasizing his offensive upside alongside Tatum. If you can get the best out of both wings, then the Celtics have a significant chance of walking away with the ‘W’ on any given night - and yes, that means tonight, too.
This time last season, things seemed far worse than they do now. The defense was leaky, the offense clunky, and there seemed to be some infighting between the team’s core players. Factor in the fanbase's skepticism of Ime Udoka’s ability to lead the team, and it’s easy to see why Boston struggled out of the gates.
This year, the team has shown incredible togetherness, seem to enjoy Mazzulla’s leadership, and are hungry to take the final step toward success. Everything that’s happening on the court can be fixed, rotations can be altered, and defensive gameplans remain fluid.
Regardless of the outcome against the Bulls, things looked a lot worse this time last year, and they evolved into one of the best seasons in recent memory, so, let’s give Mazzulla some time to continue implementing his philosophy and for the roster to adjust to the changes that seemingly happened overnight. The Celtics are still a championship-caliber team, but every team has growing pains at one point or another.