Late in the first quarter of the Boston Celtics’ penultimate preseason game, Joe Mazzulla sprinted up the sideline, calling for his guys to double-team Miles McBride at the top of the key. They left Jericho Sims, who has attempted one three in two seasons with the New York Knicks, open on the perimeter in favor of sending pressure at the ball.
By the end of the second, the Celtics were pressing full-court, forcing the Knicks to scramble in hopes of beating the eight-second clock, which ticked close before they managed to get the ball past half-court.
With a new-look roster and an entire season of being the head coach under his belt, Mazzulla and the Celtics are striving for greatness on the defensive end, and that means stirring the pot a little.
“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve had a defensive system, and it’s about how to maintain that, but at the same time, find ways to be flexible and change the dynamic of a possession or change the dynamic of a game,” Mazzulla said post-game.
Boston shipped out a slew of top-notch defensive players this summer, including Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams. And while those guys were replaced with two high-tier defenders in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, the defense will inevitably change.
Mazzulla has put the Celtics through the wringer during training camp. After the Knicks game, Tatum admitted that practices have been exceptionally hard, throwing an expletive at the end of his statement for good measure.
But he also noted that Boston has been getting used to some new intricacies on the defensive side of the ball.
“Some new terminology, some new concepts that we implemented early in training camp that we’ve been trying out during these first couple of games,” Tatum said. “So, we’re still learning, still trying to get used to it, and everybody’s buying it. Everybody’s got to be on the same page. And I think we will be.”
Whether it be questions regarding the starting lineup, how many touches guys will get, or what Boston’s primary defensive scheme will look like, the Celtics are all-in on whatever gameplan Mazzulla cooks up.
His new obsession with finding a “curveball” has spawned from his desire to be less predictable, and the controlled chaos he seemingly hopes to utilize was prominent on Tuesday night.
“Our guys are open-minded to doing a couple of different things depending on what the game calls for and how to throw a curveball,” Mazzulla said. “And so we’re just kind of figuring out what those look like for our roster for our team and how we can execute it.”
Holiday even spent some time guarding Mitchell Robinson as the Knicks rolled out a double-big lineup, while Boston began the game with two guards and one big on the floor.
Lamar Stevens spent time guarding centers for brief stints earlier in the preseason, and guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could be getting more run in those spots, too.
“We’re asking bigger guys to guard smaller guys and smaller guys to guard bigger guys. All year,” Mazzulla said.
Perhaps the most intriguing wrinkle to Tuesday’s defensive affairs was Porzingis. If Mazzulla is a middle-aged dad, Porzingis is the new power tool he just picked up from Home Depot, with Brad Stevens acting as the store clerk.
Except in this case, Porzingis isn’t just one power tool. He’s a whole bundle.
At 7-foot-3, Porzingis’ elite rim protection was on full display as he picked up two blocks and towered over everyone on the interior. Porzingis’ drop coverage paired with Derrick White’s and Holiday’s trailing defense is a storyline the big man and Mazzulla have discussed throughout the preseason thus far.
But the bundled portion of Porzingis’ ostensibly endless defensive toolkit presented itself late in the third quarter. The Knicks ran a pick-n-roll at the wing, but rather than dropping back, Porzingis blitzed the ball-handler, trapping him and forcing him to dump the ball off.
The play resulted in a measly jump hook in the paint, which the Knicks missed. It’s a defensive look that could pop up frequently throughout the season, as Mazzulla trusts Porzingis to make the right reads in those situations.
“Joe has kind of given me a green light on defense [to] be able to trap sometimes in certain situations [in] the pick and roll, and that’s what I did,” Porzingis said. “I see an opportunity to maybe put some pressure on them defensively, and I go for it.”
From blitzing ball-handlers to picking up full-court to double-teaming guards and leaving non-shooters open to make a play, the Celtics showed off their new unpredictability mindset on Tuesday.
It may have been a preseason game, and the Knicks may not have played their starters, but the concept was effective.
“We had a few good situations today where we kind of- they have to look for the next pass, and the offense stagnates, and they have to run towards the ball, and it kind of [wastes] some seconds on the clock.
“So, yeah, I enjoy doing that, and I think, as I said, again, the more time we get together playing, the more we’ll feel each other on the floor, and the smoother it will be,” said Porzingis.
After years of the Celtics employing a switch-heavy defense, one that was effective for years, this year’s team has the potential to do things differently.
With all of the tools Mazzulla has at his disposal, he could get weird. And based on the number of different looks he threw at the starter-less, preseason, first-night-of-a-back-to-back Knicks on Tuesday night, the best is yet to come.