Two wins in the three games isn’t a terrible start to preseason. Especially when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have sat the past two contests. In Wednesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, we got a good look at Boston’s new additions and some of the familiar faces' developments during the summer.
After three games, we’re starting to see the offensive and defensive philosophies come together, too. There’s a heavy focus on transition play and early offensive actions. We’re still seeing a bunch of threes, but there’s a willingness to get inside, too.
Defensively, Boston is playing an aggressive switching system with the big man in drop. Hard close-outs, smart rotations, and lots of digging/pinching from the wings ensure the Celtics' length is utilized.
We definitely haven’t seen everything Mazzulla and his coaching staff are working on. The picture is slowly coming into focus, though. Still, rather than trying to decipher every little detail, let’s focus on what we saw against the Sixers.
#1 Pace + Early actions
The Celtics are playing with pace. The Celtics are flowing into early actions as they look to beat the defense before they’re set. Early pitch-ahead passes (EPAs), quick screening actions, and rapid pace changes were all on show against the Sixers. However, one of the more consistent wrinkles was the Celtics' use of empty-side actions in transition.
An empty side action is when a shooter does not fill the corner, and the action takes place on the wing. Kristaps Porzingis was involved in multiple possessions where the Celtics attacked with pace and utilized an empty side.
The different ways that Kristaps Porzingis can score is just so key for Boston, especially in transition. Screen and roll and then ends up hitting a 3 as a trail big. pic.twitter.com/WZO34saO3a— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 11, 2023
By not having a shooter in the corner, there is no defender on the baseline, allowing for an easier roll to the rim. The Celtics look to utilize that spacing by having Porzingis set a drag screen before rolling to the rim for the lob pass. The possession doesn’t end in a bucket, but the process is clear.
#2 Sam Hauser
Heading into Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia, we hadn’t seen the best of Sam Hauser. The sharpshooting forward had struggled to find his range and rhythm in the first two preseason games. However, everything came together for him as he converted on 4-of-9 from deep, showcasing his ability as a movement shooter.
Sam Hauser is too smooth!— NBA (@NBA) October 12, 2023
He's got 10 in the 3rd quarter and 15 on the game.
BOS/PHI heading into the 4th on NBA TV pic.twitter.com/TNncu06t2c
Having a spot-up three-point threat is one thing. Having a sharpshooter who can curl over screens, sink or lift into shooting pockets, run get actions before squaring their hips, or simply cut into space is incredibly valuable. We should expect to see Hauser’s movement improve as the season progresses.
Hauser also flashed some upside when driving closeouts and picking out a well-timed pass.
I like this development from Hauser. Attacking closeouts off the dribble will be a big addition to his game.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 12, 2023
Gets the paint touch, kicks it out for the assist. pic.twitter.com/1qX91snPCJ
#3 Kristaps Porzingis post work
There were multiple possessions where the Celtics fed Kristaps Porzingis on the post and stood around waiting for him to carve out a scoring opportunity. Ideally, you want players cutting toward the rim or flaring off screens when Porzingis has the rock on the block.
Porzingis is a valuable post-scorer. However, the Celtics need to ensure they’re putting him in better situations. The Sixers collapsed on the veteran big every time he caught the ball on the block, and with no Celtics players relocating to provide an outlet, Porzingis was forced to absorb contact.
The Celtics haven’t had an elite post-scorer in years. The current core has never had to develop good post-work instincts. However, if Boston is going to get the best out of Porzingis on the block, they need to work for him, which starts with off-ball movement.
#4 Jrue Holiday two-way performance
We haven’t seen much of Jrue Holiday during the preseason. So, saying his performance against the Sixers was his best so far isn’t exactly the grand statement it sounds like. However, we 100% did get a glimpse of what Holiday is going to bring to the table this season — on both ends of the floor.
Context is going to help Jrue Holiday. Doesn't have anything, gets it right to White. Drive and kick back to Jrue. Drives the closeout and finishes. pic.twitter.com/LL5xXD7dyV— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 11, 2023
Holiday showed off-the-dribble scoring, the ability to get to the rim, score off the catch, intense defensive pressure, and some high-level lateral quickness on closeouts. It was beautiful.
Jrue Holiday playing defense is fun to watch. Switches everything here. Now you see the role for Porzingis, contain the drive, contest at the rim. pic.twitter.com/1wgjzbLSbS— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 11, 2023
We all knew what the Celtics were getting when they acquired Holiday from the Portland Trail Blazers. Seeing it in action is just way more exciting that talking about the concept, though.
#5 Joe Mazzulla is coaching the team hard
Before the Celtics hired Ime Udoka as the team’s head coach, Tatum, Brown, and a few other rotation players all mentioned their desire to be coached hard. Last season, as a rookie head coach, Mazzulla didn’t appear to be a taskmaster that would hold guys accountable in the moment.
This season, Mazzulla looks and sounds far more comfortable in his role. Perhaps it’s having his own staff on the sidelines. Perhaps it’s some internal growth. Whatever the reason, Mazzulla looks ready and willing to embrace difficult moments with his players, as we saw when he yanked Dalano Banton less than 30 seconds after subbing him into the game. Banton had failed to dive for a loose ball in the possession, leading to his being pulled.
“Listen, there’s nothing more important than holding people to a high standard, especially when you believe in them and know they can be really, really good,” Mazzulla said. “And we have a roster of 1-17 that I truly believe in. And there’s just a good learning opportunity. There was a loose ball there and I thought he could have gotten it. So credit to him that he was able to take coaching, and he responded really, really well. He’s got a chance to be a really good player in this league and I just loved the mentality that he brought to being coached and then responding. It’s super important. And I’m thankful that he allowed me to coach him.”
If Mazzulla sticks with his commitment to coaching his team hard, he could end up bringing out the best in his incredibly talented roster. Banton came back into the game and hustled his butt off, so, clearly, the Celtics are willing to be held accountable, regardless of the timing or situation.
#6 Everybody loves Neemias Queta
Almost eight minutes of playing time and no fouls: that’s an improvement! Neemias Queta has already earned himself a place in Celtics fans' hearts. Queta entered the game when the Celtics struggled to maintain the pace they had shown in the first half of the game. Some quick rim runs, solid screens, and back-to-back dunks were enough to reinvigorate the Celtics roster and prove that a big potential backup is waiting to be developed.
If Neemias Queta (@nemi1599) is going to play like this, the Celtics will have no choice but to convert his two-way deal into standard contract— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) October 12, 2023
He got 10 points (4-4 FG), three boards and two assists last night: pic.twitter.com/DQel9FV4AC
#7 Playoff P
Shoutout to Drew Carter for another awesome Payton Pritchard nickname! Jokes aside, Pritchard has been the standout performer over the first three preseason games. On Wednesday, we got to see a little more of the Oregon product’s bag, especially when cutting toward the rim and getting easy finishes inside.
Pritchard has added some movement to his game! Fakes the screen for Hauser before changing direction and 45-cutting into space before hitting the contest jumper.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 12, 2023
No Life Shaq voice: "That's Tough." pic.twitter.com/AIRyuDYMzd
Pritchard is earning his spot in the Celtics regular-season rotation with his current performances and could become an integral bench piece if he can translate his current level of production into NBA games.
#8 Nerding out on a fun action
Oshae Brissett hasn’t done much to get the blood pumping. However, he did have a nice kick-out pass to Svi Mykhailiuk early in the second quarter.
Zoom action, Nail Touch, kick-out, Svi for 3.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 12, 2023
Also, credit to Hauser for the quick screen that allowed Svi to sink into the corner. pic.twitter.com/rmh49nU0fa
The Celtics went to a common play by calling a “Zoom” action, which is a pin-down for a corner shooter who then curls into a dribble hand-off at the top of the perimeter. After receiving the DHO, Brissett drives to the nail, draws the defense, and hits Svi in the weakside corner, wide-open.
As I mentioned in the above Tweet, you have to give Sam Hauser credit for his screen that allowed Svi to sink into the corner, too.
The Celtics didn’t reinvent the wheel with this play; however, they ran it with speed and purpose, ending up with a high-quality shot from the corner. Not much more you can ask for during preseason.
#9 Svi is for real
There have been times in recent years when the Celtics have been in dire need of shooting specialists off the bench. Hauser has helped resolve some of those shooting woes. However, what happens when Hauser is having a cold stretch, and the starters can’t seem to find their range? We saw that scenario play out on multiple occasions last season.
That’s what Svi is for. Another knock-down shooter who can come off the bench and get you a quick three or a couple of quick threes. During the game against Philadelphia, Svi shot 75% from 3-point range and secured 6 rebounds. If he can keep providing that type of two-way production off the bench, Mazzulla will surely find a place for him in the regular-season rotation.
#10 Derrick White
Derrick White clearly wanted to remind everybody what he’s capable of. Against the Sixers, White flashed legitimate three-level scoring, elite defense, and, as usual, got back to block some shots. White is the best big-man point guard in the world right now; there’s no argument against it.
Got to love the old man hesi from White here. Uses the contact to create space, nails the floater. pic.twitter.com/5JiXwIRfp6— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 12, 2023
White’s role within the primary rotation is already cemented. We know what he brings to the team and how his versatile skillset can help elevate his teammates while also giving the Celtics a significant boost on both sides of the court. Still, seeing White doing his thing and making an impact against the Sixers was fun and a reminder of how deep this version of Boston’s roster really is.
White had a great game. He’s probably going to have a great season. I like the shaved head look. And yes, I loved the “old man hesi” move in the clip above. I’m all-in on Derrick White.