1. This was a big win for the Boston Celtics. Not just in terms of the importance of the game, although it was pretty important, but Boston hammered the Chicago Bulls on the road.
This game was never really close. The Bulls never led. The Celtics led by as many as 27. Even when Chicago made a mini-run, Boston pushed right back.
That was the opposite of that collapse the Celtics had against the Bulls back on November 1. That Boston team would build leads only to give them away like slices of pizza at a kid’s birthday party. All of a sudden you look down and it’s all gone and all that’s left is chaos and crying.
Now, the Celtics build leads and then give you no hope of coming back. They get you down and keep you there. What a five-months it’s been.
2. Al Horford is going to be a big part of whatever success Boston has in the postseason. And for however long Rob Williams is out, Boston needs just that much more from Horford. And he’s delivering.
Ime Udoka said part of the Celtics challenge down the stretch of the regular season was getting Horford and Daniel Theis more comfortable together. That seemed to manifest against the Bulls. Horford is a power forward/center making this show-and-go happen to set up Theis for the dunk:
With Williams out, rim protection becomes a team effort. Horford does a good job of stoning Nikola Vucevic in the post to start this play. Then, as Zach LaVine drives, Horford sends his shot back. Nice hit-ahead pass by Jayson Tatum and good finish by Jaylen Brown at the end of the clip too. Turning defense into offense here:
In the playoffs, it’s imperative that teams find easy offense. Even great offenses find it harder to score in the postseason. Horford’s ability to rip and run and set up teammates is huge for the Celtics postseason hopes:
3. The Celtics ball movement was again on point. 29 assists on 43 baskets is very high-level stuff.
This is about one minute into the game. Four players touch the ball, finishing with Marcus Smart making the extra pass to Al Horford:
Note: Horford is up to 41.9% from three since the All-Star break. That’s nearly a quarter of a season of good shooting. His jumper is back.
Making the extra pass is contagious. Payton Pritchard is primarily a shooter at this point in his career. He had just drilled a triple the play before, so you know he wants to shoot this one. But Pritchard passes up a good shot to get Derrick White a great one:
Look at how quick this decision-making is. Jayson Tatum reads the double-team and immediately gets it out to White. White almost has the ball swung to Jaylen Brown before he even catches it:
4. Jaylen Brown carried a good amount of the scoring with Jayson Tatum having an off shooting night. This fadeaway from Brown is starting to become a very regular occurrence:
The game is slow for Brown right now. Compared to earlier in the season, he’s got his head up and that opens everything up. As the game has slowed down, he can go quicker, but while still being patient:
Tatum has his side-step step-back jumper as his signature move. This might be Brown’s. Call it “The Staccato” because of the quick, rapid-fire dribble sequence to set up the jumper:
5. Back to the ball movement…The assists are great. Truly great. It’s been ages since Boston had a team that moved the ball the way this one does now.
To keep that ball movement working, the Celtics have to have trust in each other that the passes will get made the other way too. And they have to make shots. No one moves the ball if they don’t believe the next guy will make the shot.
They also have to keep turnovers down. Boston did an excellent job for most of this game at keeping their turnovers under control. Some giveaways will come, especially as they try to push pace and whip the ball around. But keeping that under wraps as much as possible is going to be important in the playoffs. You can’t give away possessions in the postseason.
6. DeMar DeRozan is a tough cover. He’s bigger than a lot of guards and wings, and he’s too quick for most bigger forwards. Outside of letting him dribble into a few midrange jumpers, Boston did a really good job of making DeRozan work for everything he got.
To slow down the All-NBA candidate, you have to have active hands. You can’t allow DeRozan to lull you to sleep with a series of dribbles. Grant Williams does a great job when he picks up DeRozan in transition here:
This is outstanding defense by the should-be Defensive Player of the Year. Marcus Smart takes the hit, but he’s too strong for DeRozan to move him. Then Smart uses his quick hands to get the strip:
Smart spent most of his time guarding DeRozan or Zach LaVine. He held the two Bulls All-Stars to a combined 3-of-8 shooting on 30 possessions with only one assist, while blocking a shot and forcing a turnover.
20 empty possessions and six negative ones against just four positive ones. Start engraving the DPOY trophy now.
7. We showed Tatum making a good read out of a double earlier in the Takeaways, but here’s some more good stuff from Tatum as a passer.
Tatum reads the double coming off the screen from Daniel Theis. Javonte Green slides over to tag Theis as the roller. Because Tatum is seeing the whole floor, and because he’s so big for a passer, he sees Payton Pritchard lift out of the corner for the open three-pointer:
When a natural scorer has the ball in transition, they usually look to do just that: score. But Tatum is making the right play almost every time now. Good setup to Theis for the easy bucket:
This is perfect execution and unselfish play. A lot of the best scorers will hold this ball and survey. Tatum knows what the play-call is. Good screen by Theis as Pritchard flares for the three. Perfect, on-time pass from Tatum too:
When your best player is willing to cede plays to his teammates, your ceiling gets raised so high that you can’t really see it anymore.
8. Remember when the Schroder-Horford two-man game was supposed to be a thing against second units? It never developed because the former rarely gave up the ball until he absolutely had to.
The White-Theis two-man game is a thing because White is very willing to give it up:
9. Ime Udoka must still have some scars from the blown leads earlier in the season. He’s still waiting until it’s fairly deep into the fourth quarter to pull the regulars. But if the bench performs as they have the last few times out, that will probably change.
Boston was up by 23 when Udoka started the substitution process midway through the fourth quarter. And the Celtics won the game by 23. Progress from the deeper bench guys!
10. It’s on to a short trip to face the Milwaukee Bucks for the second night of a back-to-back. This is nominally a huge game. It’s very possible that the winner of Celtics-Bucks will be the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But…we aren’t sure how much either team wants that. The Brooklyn Nets are looming as the potential #7 seed. That’s a far more difficult matchup in the first round than a top seed generally draws.
At this point, it’s unknown who will play for either side. Boston doesn’t have to release an injury report until closer to gametime and Ime Udoka was fairly cagey postgame about who would play and not play. The Bucks downgraded a couple of players, but could still choose to rest even more guys.
No matter what happens in Milwaukee, the Celtics have assured themselves of a top-4 seed and homecourt advantage in the first round. And they won their 50th game. That combination seemed like a laughably absurd goal back around the holidays, but here we are. With two games left in the year to boot. What a turnaround.