1. The idea of “bad wins” and “good losses” is kind of a funny one. In the end, they still count the same as a regular win or a regular loss, but we’ll still assign the occasional result a title of bad or good.
So, with all that said, this was a bad win for the Boston Celtics.
The San Antonio Spurs were down three starters. After a great start, where it looked like the Celtics learned some lessons from the debacle in Oklahoma City earlier in the week, it turned into a back-and-forth shootout of a game.
The most worrying part of how Boston won? It felt like time just sort of ran out on the Spurs. The Celtics went into that extreme slowdown, kill-the-clock style of play with around 6:00 to go and an 11-point lead.
It’s not using the clock that is bad. You can do that. It’s not even the “walking the dog” stuff. You can do that too. It’s how they use the clock and what comes after they walk the dog. Where things break down is after one pass, where Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown hold the ball, with everyone else rooted to their spot. There’s no ball or player movement. The opponents know this, so they load to the ball and send the extra defender when Tatum or Brown regularly have to dribble into a late-clock shot.
This is hardly a new thing. It really popped up in the bubble at the end of the 2020 season. That was somewhat excusable. Tatum and Brown were learning how to close games. Gordon Hayward was hurt and Kemba Walker wasn’t himself. But it carried over to last season, and it appears to still be a thing this year.
There were a lot of good things from this game, and we’ll start covering them now. But that coverage comes with a lingering bad taste in our mouths, like a bad dessert after a good meal.
2. This space talked about it not mattering if Rob Williams starts or not, so long as we see plenty of the lineup that dominated last season as a starting group.
We’re changing course now…Williams should probably start.
The Celtics need to get off to better starts. Williams can help with that. He’s been so good on both ends of the floor, but especially with transforming the defense.
This play sums up the Timelord experience. There aren’t many other centers in the NBA that can pull off this sequence:
Williams brings that end-to-end bounce that no one else on Boston has:
Williams is also a terrific passer from the high post:
He’s also great in the halfcourt defense, especially with Boston having perimeter breakdown after perimeter breakdown:
3. Joining Rob Williams in a big effort off the bench was Malcolm Brogdon. The Celtics big offseason acquisition got off to a great start this season, then slumped in mid-December. That coincided with Boston’s slump in the standings. Now, Brogdon is turning it around over the last week and finding his form.
Brogdon is neither fast nor slow. He’s got average footspeed, but he’s very good about playing with great personal pace. He’s the best the Celtics have had at that skill since Gordon Hayward. This play is a good example. Brogdon isn’t exactly pushing in transition here, until he uses a little burst to beat his man for the layup:
Teams have gotten comfortable with bigs switching onto Brogdon because of his recent slump. This shot is a sign Brogdon is getting it together:
Brogdon and Williams haven’t played together all that much, but the veteran guard and big man are starting to figure it out together:
With his confidence flowing again, this a great pull from Brogdon late in the shot clock:
4. It was a happy homecoming for Derrick White. With Marcus Smart leaving due to injury in the second half, White took over as the main playmaker. He finished with a solid all-around stat-line of eight points, five rebounds, 11 assists and three blocks.
On the block front, White is so good at the “from behind” block where the defender thinks he has him beaten:
Late in the game, White made a bunch of those winning plays the Celtics usually get from Smart. First was White hanging for this finish through some contact:
A minute or so later, White came up with another big block from behind:
In order to pull this play off, you have to be extremely aware of the clock, and you have to have the guts to throw the pass vs taking the shot. White is on it here, as he lobbed to Rob Williams as the clock expired:
5. Overall, this was a good showing for the “other” Celtics. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 63 points, but that’s not exactly unexpected. That’s right in range of what they do nightly. The bench tallied 41 points, with Malcolm Brogdon and Rob Williams leading the way, along with Sam Hauser looking better. And Derrick White, who is really the “extra” starter most games, put together his solid all-around night.
If we feel confident that the stars will do their things, and we should be confident in that, it’s the others producing that needs to happen. That was a regular occurrence during the red-hot start to the season. Hopefully it’s making a reemergence here in 2023.
6. When Jayson Tatum is in rhythm as a shooter, he hits a lot of threes without dribbling. In this game, Tatum hit four triples without a single bounce of the ball.
Catch, turn, rise and shoot:
Boston can get a lot out of Tatum as a screener, especially as he’s varied what he does after screening. The defense is expecting him to make the rim run, but Tatum pops against the drop:
This is just a perfect in rhythm jumper as Tatum pops out behind the Al Horford roll down the lane:
Jayson Tatum has historically picked up his play in the new year. This sort of big scoring effort, on good shooting, might be the first of many we see over the final 40+ games.
7. Jaylen Brown used to be all speed and power. If he couldn’t go around you, he was going to go through you. That’s still there for Brown. He still makes those plays. But he’s added so much craft to his scoring too.
This drive is a good example of not trying to power over someone but using skill. Brown gets where he wants and then uses his body to shield the defender from the ball:
If Brown has a signature shot, it’s one of the next two. First, we’ll offer the paint fallaway, which Brown gets to a few times per game:
The other is Brown’s midrange pullup, which is so pure now:
One of those two shots is what we think of now with Jaylen Brown, along with the occasional throwdown on someone’s head.
8. We hammer the point about the stars working away from the ball to get buckets, because it makes their lives easier as scorers. Tatum slipping screens gets Boston at least one or two baskets per game:
This was one of those delayed ATO sets from Boston. It came after a Spurs ran their play following a timeout. The Celtics then went into some misdirection with Jaylen Brown cutting from the corner before Malcolm Brogdon dropped the dime:
9. Speaking of ATO sets, this was a beautiful call from Joe Mazzulla. The Celtics want to get the ball to their star for the go-ahead hoop, while also preserving the 2-for-1. Jayson Tatum gets it with great spacing. The Spurs can’t send a second defender without leaving someone open. And Tatum goes quickly to get a great look for what was ultimately the game-winner:
10. Circling back to our opener…a win is a win. They all count the same when you look at the standings, no matter how ugly or bad they were.
Of immediate concern is the injury to Marcus Smart. It seems like a relatively minor knee bruise, so that’s a relief. We should know more later on Sunday or Monday.
After Smart, the next concern is a tough stretch of games this week. The Chicago Bulls have been playing better as of late, and they seem to have something for the Celtics over the last few years. Even back at home on Monday, that will likely be a wild one. Then it’s a back-to-back set against the New Orleans Pelicans (at home) and the Brooklyn Nets (on the road). This a strong group of opponents for Boston to test if they’ve really figured things out or not.