The first Boston Celtics game of 2023 is upon us! Hopefully, it will end in a win, but more importantly, it will result in a solid performance that sets the tone for the year ahead. This time last year, the Celtics were still struggling, and we knew little of the monumental turn-around we were about to witness.
This year, we hope the Celtics' exceptional play continues and that we can mark 2023 in the history books as the year Boston final hung that elusive 18th banner. However, any such success is still miles away, and for now, we focus on the next game, which in our case, is against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, January 1.
The Celtics faced Denver back in November and ran away clear winners courtesy of a 131-112 scoreline. However, there has been a barren spell for the Celtics since then, so there’s that. Still, let's take a look at 3 ways in which the Celtics can look to position themselves for victory on Sunday.
Moreyball Is Key
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the term ‘Moreyball,’ it’s a play on words from the hit movie Moneyball. It is designed to pay homage to Daryl Morey’s analytically focused basketball philosophy that saw the Houston Rockets become heavily reliant on lay-ups and threes. Against the Nuggets, Boston should make that approach their sole focus.
You see, the Nuggets rank 29th in the NBA for rim defense, allowing a 70.9% conversion rate within 4 feet of the basket, while also sitting 26th in the league for their perimeter defense, with teams dropping 37.4% of their threes. However, it should be noted that while the Nuggets are incredibly porous around the rim, they do rank 10th in the league for limiting opponents' attempts within that region; luckily, the same can’t be said about their perimeter defense.
If the Celtics can utilize their off-the-dribble penetration and then attack what the defense gives them — as they have done for the most part of the season — then the Nuggets will struggle to contain one of the league’s best offenses over a 48-minute period.
Win the perimeter battle
The Nuggets are the top-ranked three-point shooting team in the NBA right now, according to Cleaning The Glass, converting 40.2% of their attempts from the perimeter and 39.1% of their looks from the corner. Interestingly, though, Denver ranks 26th in three-point volume, so they might be making their shots at a high clip, but they’re certainly being judicial about when to let them fly.
As such, Boston’s job on Sunday is clear - don’t give Denver reason to shoot from deep. Fight over every screen, force shooters off the line, and look to make Denver beat you inside. Right now, the Nuggets rank 5th in rim attempts, so it’s clear they like to pressure the rim, and drive downhill, so the Celtics shouldn't have too much of a hard time in pressuring Mike Malone’s team into moving away from the area where they seem most dangerous.
Another area where the Celtics could look to dominate the Nuggets is in transition off of live rebounds, something that is often referred to as ‘rip and run.’ No team in the league is giving up more points per 100 possessions in these situations than the Nuggets, and while the Celtics don’t exactly excel in this area (they’re 15th in the league), they have the personnel to make a serious impact.
Allowing Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White to sprint the floor as soon as a rebound is secured is a surefire way to ensure Boston gets into some early-offense and puts the Nuggets on the back foot with consistency.
It’s worth noting that the Nuggets are actually one of the best in the league at attacking directly off of live rebounds, ranking second in the league, so the Celtics will have plenty of opportunity to see how it’s done before looking to counter with their own brand of rip-and-run offense down the stretch.
The Nuggets are a tough test at any point in the season, so the fact the Celtics will be facing them on New Year's Day should not be seen as an indicator of what’s to come moving forward, regardless of whether they win or lose.
Still, there will be some interesting and exciting matchups, and Tatum will get a chance to be the first player this year to drop 40 points, which is always fun. As I always do, I’m backing the Celtics to walk away from this game with the W. However, I don’t think it’s going to be by a wide margin. Put me down for a 3 possession game at best.