1. At points during this one, the Boston Celtics looked a little off their game. Shots didn’t fall, the defense was bad, the rebounding was bad and the ballhandling was sloppy. As Marcus Smart said postgame, “This is a game earlier in the year that we probably lose”.
Then in the second half, the Celtics found their fight and took it to the Denver Nuggets.
Shots continued to not fall, but the defense was great. The rebounding went from bad to good. The turnovers were a little messy, but more than offset by the ones Boston forced themselves.
Winning ugly is still winning. And when the result goes in the lefthand column, no one really cares what it looked like.
2. Robert Williams has made a major leap this season. Not only has he proven able to handle a big minutes-load, but he’s retained his productivity as his playing time has increased. Part of what’s enabled that is Williams is no longer a foul machine.
In this game, that showed up against Nikola Jokic. Jokic checked back in with 7:19 to play in the game. Ime Udoka chose to leave Williams on the floor as the primary defender on Jokic. Boston even stopped switching off-ball actions to leave Williams on Jokic as much as possible down the stretch.
In years past, Williams gets fouled out by Jokic within five minutes in a situation like this. Not this year. Williams stayed down on fakes, used his speed and strength to keep Jokic off-balance, and his athleticism to bother shots from the MVP.
During that final 7:19 stretch, Jokic shot just 3-of-8 from the floor, and one of those was a meaningless, uncontested putback with seconds to play.
That’s growth from Williams, that shows he has all the highlight reel stuff that makes him special, but that he’s also got the craft and skill now too.
That said, here’s a couple of highlights, because when Rob is doing ROB stuff, it’s so much fun.
Williams admitted that Jayson Tatum “got on my ass” about dunking this ball, but Williams has the passing gene:
This is a winning play and one that very few big men can make. Williams teleports to the opposite block to take this dunk away:
3. The Celtics found out about 45 minutes before the game that all physicals were cleared, and that Derrick White could play. Ime Udoka immediately threw White into the mix and, shockingly, White played the final 17 minutes of the game. Udoka probably felt comfortable using White so much late, because of his terrific start to his Boston tenure.
Part of what the Celtics like about White is that he’s quickly off the other way with the ball with his head up. That allows for plays like this:
White has played a lot off the ball in San Antonio, because Dejounte Murray is so good. But White has point guard skills. This is a good read in transition to get Jayson Tatum a dunk:
(Side note: No idea what in the world JaMychal Green is doing here on defense.)
And White’s first hoop as a Celtic came off a nice play. Tatum drives and kicks to Payton Pritchard. Pritchard then swings it to White in the corner for the open triple:
4. The above pass by Jayson Tatum was a good example of something he and Jaylen Brown have come so far with: passing when drawing multiple defenders. At times it’s still messy, but Tatum and Brown are trying to make the right play. Process over results…but sometimes the results are so pretty.
You double against Brown at the top of the key, your backside rotation better be there, or he’s diming up a shooter:
Tatum invites the double-team here. And then he makes an extremely high-level pass to the opposite corner. Also, look how quick White’s release is on this jumper:
This one isn’t against a double, but Boston chased Denver out of a zone defense after only one play, because Tatum got right into the middle of it to find Al Horford for a dunk:
Simple stuff there. And sometimes keeping it simple is best.
5. Marcus Smart said postgame that he thinks playing with Derrick White has a chance to be special because they are “two of the best defensive players in the game”. Smart also said the Celtics have size across the board now. No one will be able to pick on matchups anymore because of a size advantage.
That size and length caused havoc throughout this game. Boston forced 21 turnovers, many of them live-ball, as the Celtics snagged 13 steals. They also blocked eight shots, with the three-big rotation of Al Horford, Robert Williams and Grant Williams combining for all eight.
Boston is going to switch everything, live with the matchups that result and defend their behinds off. That’s how the Celtics have been winning, and with Derrick White, and Daniel Theis soon, they have the pieces to take that defense to a new level.
6. The other reason Boston has been winning is their ball movement has been on point. They shot horribly in this game but generated a ton of open looks. And when they did make a bucket, it was most often an assisted one. The primarily ISO-based offense is largely gone, replaced by one that features good ball and player movement, unless there is an extreme mismatch to attack.
Drive-and-kick, then drive-and-kick again. White hits the paint. Then Tatum hits the paint, as White relocates:
Again, the ball hits the paint. Then it’s ping, ping, ping and open jumper:
This one might get you up out of your seat. Or if you watched live, it probably did. Drive the ball, kick to the corner, quick swing, fake the jumper, drive again, lob to Rob:
24 assists on 38 baskets. Beautiful stuff.
7. Grant Williams’ role isn’t going to be lessened by the presence of Daniel Theis. Think of Theis as a major upgrade on the fourth-big role that Enes Freedom had. Williams is the Celtics most-consistent shooter, as he’s up to 43.3% after going 2-for-3 from deep against the Nuggets.
But it’s defensive plays like this that will keep Grant in the lineup:
And if once is nice, why not twice?
The first one was a great recovery. The second was pure hustle. That’s Grant doing GRANT stuff.
8. Because Derrick White comes in with more size than Dennis Schroder, the Celtics were able to run a fun little tweak late in this game. This is a small-small pick-and-roll with Jaylen Brown as the ballhandler and White as the screener. This is a play you can’t run with Schroder, because he doesn’t have the size to be a roller. Look for Boston to incorporate more stuff like this the rest of the season:
9. Ime Udoka stuck with his eight-man rotation. Derrick White ate up the Josh Richardson minutes, plus some of the Dennis Schroder minutes. Payton Pritchard got the leftover Schroder minutes, while Grant Williams played his usual role. Some nights it could be Aaron Nesmith getting the minutes Pritchard got in this one. Or maybe a guard/wing buyout candidate takes one of the three open roster spots.
Up front, Daniel Theis is insurance, just like Enes Freedom was. But he’s more valuable insurance, because now Al Horford can get spotted the occasional rest day. Or if Robert Williams is feeling anything at all, Udoka can sit him and plug Theis in. Theis allows the Celtics to play the exact same scheme, without having to tweak for the defensive deficiencies of Freedom.
The Celtics don’t have overwhelming depth, but they have solid functional depth. There isn’t a bad defender in their 10-deep look. Pritchard is probably the worst defender of the bunch, but he’s solid on-ball against guards because he’s quick and tough. Sometimes removing questionable players from your rotation is just as important as picking up better ones.
10. Seven straight wins for the Celtics, who are starting to create a little distance on the other teams in the Play-In Tournament range. The challenge is that the Toronto Raptors have won eight straight games, so the Celtics haven’t made up any ground there yet.
White’s debut was a smashing success. Theis’ re-debut will come soon. And Brad Stevens has some work to do to finish filling out the roster beyond converting Sam Hauser to a standard deal and signing Luke Kornet.
Boston has three more games before the All-Star break: vs Atlanta on Super Bowl Sunday, at Philadelphia on Tuesday and a back-to-back vs Detroit on Wednesday. The Celtics have struggled with the Hawks this year, so that’s another important game. The Sixers games are always fun matchups, and Philly won’t likely have James Harden available yet. And Detroit continues to languish at the bottom of the standings.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility Boston hits the break on a 10-game win streak. Not likely, given 10-game streaks are rare, but it’s possible. But for now, it’s one game at a time, and appropriate of the game being on the NFL’s biggest day, and paraphrasing Bill Belichick, it’s “On to Atlanta”.