1. The Boston Celtics win at the Toronto Raptors was one of the best of the season. Boston was on a back-to-back and without some key contributors. That made that victory very satisfying.
The Celtics win at the Phoenix Suns was the most complete victory of the season. Once Boston took control at the end of the first quarter, it was complete domination. And it came against the best team in the Western Conference and one of the best bets to represent the West in the NBA Finals.
The Celtics held the Suns to 39.8% shooting. Boston forced 18 turnovers. Phoenix shot a paltry 8-of-32 from behind the arc. In every conceivable way the Celtics dominated. And they did it against a very good team.
And then following the game, the Celtics stayed focused saying the is “trending in the right direction” and “none of this matters if we don’t hang a banner”.
2. Boston’s offense was a little bit off to open the game. Jaylen Brown seemed sped up and was rushing his shot. Jayson Tatum seemed a little unsure of how to attack the Suns defense with Mikal Bridges guarding him.
Grant Williams is overflowing with confidence. He’s gone from doing a little bit of everything to do a lot of everything. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Williams is giving Boston consistently good minutes.
In this one, Williams got the scoring started. This is a pretty confident pull, considering there were enough jab steps to make Carmelo Anthony smile:
A couple of plays later, Williams and Blake Griffin (more on him later) work an improvised big-big DHO. Watch how Williams uses his right shoulder without extending his arm to create space against Deandre Ayton on the drive:
If he gets a smaller guy on him, Williams is doing a great job getting on the offensive glass. This is a strong rebound and putback:
Overall, Williams finished with 14 points, on 6-of-6 shooting, to go along with six rebounds and some really good defense. He’s going to be a very, very rich man come July.
3. There aren’t going to be a lot of Jaylen Brown highlights in this version of the Takeaways. He struggled to get his shot to fall, especially early, before eventually finding his rhythm.
More important? There aren’t going to be any lowlights.
Brown is in the midst of a three-game stretch where he’s played more than 107 minutes and committed just one turnover. ONE. For a guy sporting nearly a 1-1 assist-to-turnover ratio on the season, that’s remarkable stuff.
Brown has tightened up his handle and his passing. He’s making a lot of plays as a passer now that were sporadic, at best, previously. And he remains one of the best drivers in the league. This is a very strong finish for one of several and-1s Brown drew on the night:
4. It’s fun watching Jayson Tatum’s ascension as one of the NBA’s most dangerous scorers. As a rookie, Tatum did a lot of his work off spot-ups and the occasional drive. Then he started doing a bit more transition. Then the step-back, side-step jumper became his signature shot. Last year, into this season, Tatum has become a really solid finisher at the rim. He’s doing a great job mixing power with athleticism, the latter of which he showed off here:
(There’s that lefthand again! You know who you are.)
Tatum is also working out of the post a ton. He’s done a nice job of varying what he’s going to go to in those spots. Rather than challenge Mikal Bridges off the dribble (rarely a good idea!), Tatum simply uses his size to hit the no-dribble Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaway:
5. We’re running out of ways to describe Malcolm Brogdon. We’ve used steady, professional and stabilizing. This time around, we’ll just go with “good”.
Bridging the first and second quarters, Brogdon came in and took over the game. Drop off too much in transition and Brogdon is happy to pullup for the three:
Each of the Celtics guards are so good at drawing the defense and finding the bigs, that it’s hard to pick out who is best. Luke Kornet does a great job working off his playmakers:
This such a simple, smart and effective read. Brogdon knows the defense is scrambled after sending a double at Jayson Tatum. He drives that scramble for the easy floater:
16 points and five assists in 19 minutes. Just what the doctor ordered off the Boston bench.
6. During the game, we noted Boston was just coming at Phoenix in waves. From about the midpoint of the first quarter one, the Celtics were simply overwhelming the Suns. No matter what Phoenix tried, the Celtics were going to get a good shot.
Boston had 12 turnovers, but that’s a pretty low number. And a good amount of those came when the game was already well in hand. Until the fourth quarter, which featured extensive minutes for the deeper bench players, the offense was above 50% shooting.
Call them a machine, a wagon, or whatever you like, the Celtics are absolutely locked in offensively.
7. Joe Mazzulla’s ATO work has been really good. He’s using some of Brad Stevens’ favorite ATO plays, which makes sense given Mazzulla was on Stevens’ staff. He’s also expanded on a few of Ime Udoka’s sets, which were carried over from his time with the Spurs.
Boston has been at the top of the NBA in points off ATOs. One fun wrinkle is that Mazzulla will regularly call a set when the opponent calls a timeout. The idea is for Boston to have something planned when they get the ball back.
This one is a traditional ATO though and it’s a look Stevens favored on full-court ATOs. The ballhandler starts as the only player above the free throw line. Two shooters space to the corners, while the wing (in this case Jayson Tatum, but it’s often been Jaylen Brown) comes up with the big holding in the dunker spot.
Now, watch when Tatum catches the ball. The options are many. He can hand it off to Malcolm Brogdon as he cuts off the pass. That would give Brogdon a head-start at getting downhill. If the strongside corner defender helps, Brogdon has an easy kickout. If the big rotates, he can dump it off to Luke Kornet. If the big rotates and the opposite corner drops in to cover for him, Brogdon can hit Sam Hauser. If everyone rotates, there should be an easy pitch back to Tatum.
But none of that happens. Tatum feels Josh Okogie has his hips turned to help on that Brogdon cut, so Tatum spins to take it himself. Because Brogdon stops his cut and flares to the wing, Tatum has all the same options as Brogdon would have had. In this case, the defenders all mostly stay home, Tatum gets Okogie on his backside and it’s a layup:
8. So much for Blake Griffin only being effective if he plays once a week. Griffin was pressed into action for a second game in a row due to Al Horford being in the health and safety protocols. And Griffin stepped up again.
Yes, he exploded for a dunk last game, but this is Griffin’s game now: the pick-and-pop. And because Griffin can pass, it doesn’t slow up the offense if the defense closes had to him. Here, he’s left wide-open and knocks it down in a great Horford impression:
In order for Griffin to play for Boston, he has to hold up in the team’s switching defensive system. There’s really no room for someone who can’t defend and hold their own. This is great one-on-one defense against a tricky wing scorer in Mikal Bridges:
9. They aren’t always the ones finishing plays, but Marcus Smart and Derrick White are pretty regularly setting up those finishes. Boston’s offense is humming along because Smart and White, combined with Malcolm Brogdon, are giving the team high-end playmaking every night.
Once or twice per game, White gets in the paint and hits Luke Kornet with a late pass for an easy finish at the rim like this:
White is so good in transition. He’s always got his head up to pick out a driving lane or to find a teammate. Nice rhythm-dribble from Grant Williams in the corner office here too:
This is just pretty basketball. All the off-ball movement is mostly window dressing. But the defense is pulled away from the weakside corner by Jaylen Brown and Grant Williams’ gravity. With Deandre Ayton dropping to protect against the cutting Brown, Blake Griffin sidesteps to get just enough of a screen on Torrey Craig. From there it’s just about Smart dropping the dime over the top to White:
Some teams call this a “pivot pitch” because the passer pivots from the post to pitch it to the shooter or cutter. No matter what you call it, it’s a nice pass from Smart to Brown, who stops on a dime for the jumper:
If you want to be a high-level playmaker, you have to have the hook pass to the opposite corner in your arsenal. Perfect pass from Smart to Griffin here:
Oh look, it’s that second time per game that White sets up Kornet:
10. The Celtics road trip is off to a 3-0 start. Boston now gets an extra day off before a Finals rematch against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night. It’s the first ABC Saturday Showcase of the season and there will be a lot of hoopla around the game. It’s a chance for the Celtics to at least semi-exorcise some demons from the way last season ended.
But, in reality, it’s just the next game. The Celtics are focused on the bigger picture by staying grounded in the immediate. They can’t erase what happened in the 2022 NBA Finals on Saturday night, nor can they win the 2023 NBA Finals. But they can beat the Warriors to secure a winning trip and extend their win streak to four straight games. That’s the focus for Saturday.