We finally got our first look at the Boston Celtics' most logical starting five for next season. Al Horford came off the bench. Jayson Tatum and Kristaps Porzingis thrived in Boston’s exceptional spacing. Jaylen Brown had moments. Jrue Holiday did Jrue Holiday things. And Derrick White was as steady as ever.
The Celtics looked every inch the championship contender they’re billed as. The scary part? It’s clear there is still some on-court cohesion that needs to develop. Some passes weren’t expected. Others were too quick or too high or too low.
Still, Joe Mazzulla’s roster is exciting. They play across all three levels. They defend hard. And they execute with pace and force. This was our first look at the new Celtics. It was as encouraging as it gets.
Here are 10 takeaways from the Celtics' October 17 win over the New York Knicks.
# 1 Stagger actions
The Celtics ran a lot of stagger actions against New York. It makes sense. Boston has size and offensive versatility throughout their roster. Placing two scoring threats as screeners and having another threat operating as the ball-handler is a ghoulish recipe for a defense to try and contain.
The beauty of staggered actions is that they can come from anywhere. Early offense. Trailer offense (last players to enter the offensive half court). On the wings. Around the posts. There are countless possibilities. Boston looked to utilize multiple ways of getting into their stagger offense.
In the above example, the Celtics have Holiday and Porzingis operate as a trailing stagger. That means both players entered the half-court late and flowed straight into a stagger screen. Neither screener cuts. Instead, they walk toward the free-throw line extended, dragging their defenders with them. The result is an open three for Jaylen Brown.
The above stagger action for Hauser to get an open three is known as a “floppy.” Usually, there would also be a single screener on the strong side, giving Hauser his choice of where to cut and drag his defender. Nevertheless, this is another example of running a stagger action to generate high-quality offense. Hauser comes off the floppy action and steps into an open three in the slot.
I’m sure we will be looking at more and more of Boston’s stagger actions in the coming weeks and months. They project to be a staple of the Celtics offense this season.
#2 Getting nerdy: 21 Nash
Okay, just one more stagger action. This time, it comes as an early offense series known as “21.” The name is pretty simple — the action (usually) involves both guards. I’ve kept this as a separate takeaway because the combinations of White + Brown, Holiday + Brown, and White+ Holiday are incredibly intriguing.
All three guards have diverse offensive options and can defend at a high level.
21 actions usually involve an early pitch-ahead pass (EPA) from one guard to another on the wing. What happens next decides what action from the 21 series the team runs. In the above clip, Holiday hits Brown with the pitch ahead and then flows into a double/stagger screen for Brown, which is known as 21 Nash.
Again, the Celtics' offensive versatility ensures the defense has to respect all three players involved in the action, along with the two that are spacing the floor on the weak side of the court. Brown curls over the screens and bully-drives his way to the rim for an easy two.
Brown looks jacked, by the way. Bully drives should be a staple of his rim-pressure offense this season.
#3 Increasing the pressure
Curveballs. Going to a full-court press multiple times throughout the game was a curveball. We all were expecting to see some additional zone defense during preseason. Instead, the Celtics go to a full-court intense pressure defense...and it worked!
I’m unsure whether we see the Celtics consistently go to this press defense during the regular season. However, it's certainly a viable option with the size, length, and tenacity within their top-6/top-7 rotation. At times, the Knicks rotation looked shell-shocked by how much pressure the Celtics were applying in the press, and it led to some sped-up decision-making from New York. I liked it. It was fun.
#4 Going super big
There was a stretch in the first quarter where the Celtics went with a lineup of Holiday, Brown, Tatum, Horford, and Porzingis. If I recall, they also returned to it in the third. That lineup is incredibly big and has some legitimate length. Boston’s ability to flit between small-ball and supersized-ball in a matter of minutes will be a huge asset throughout the season.
Mazzulla has some serious counters to how teams look to play them, which could be the difference between a hard-fought loss and a well-earned victory. Teams will have difficulty adjusting their rotations to succeed against this version of the Celtics roster.
#5 Tatum in the post
Tatum was playing in his second preseason game, having sat the last two. However, one thing that has been prominent throughout those two appearances is how frequently he’s getting to work in the mid-post. That’s not to say we should expect him to live on the block and operate as an offensive hub. Instead, it’s just another example of the versatility within his game and within Boston’s new-look offense.
Tatum doesn’t begin his offense on the block in the above possession. He does back his man down all the way to the basket, though. Tatum, like Brown, looks bigger this season. He’s added muscle and strength. Being capable of earning an interior bucket in this manner, with elite shooters spaced all around you, will ensure Tatum gets some easy looks around the rim throughout the season.
As a hat tip, I want to share a quick clip of Tatum making a rapid-fire read from the perimeter.
Call it processing speed. Call it the game slowing down. It doesn’t matter what term you want to use. The fact is, Tatum is seeing the floor quicker and making faster, smarter decisions. Those passes (we saw some to Holiday on the block throughout the game, too) will only help Boston’s offense get easy buckets during the season.
#6 Getting nerdy part 2: Gut exits
Explaining the terminology: A gut screen faces the baseline and is set around the middle of the court. An exit screen is a screen that allows the cutter to exit from a two-point range onto the perimeter. The Celtics put these two types of screens together and ran “gut exits” throughout their game against the Knicks. This is a type of action we haven’t seen them run much during the preseason.
I think we see a lot of these actions moving forward. Boston has too many high-gravity shooters on their roster not to take advantage of actions such as this one. As Horford sets the “gut exit” screen for Brown, two defenders get caught in the paint. Brown flows into a shooting motion, drawing Donte DiVincenzo away from Jrue Holiday. A quick dump-off pass leads to a wide-open corner three. Easy money.
More of those, please.
#7 Hauser hustled on defense
Last season, the question was whether Hauser could hang on defense. This season, whether Hauser’s defensive upside will keep him ahead of Svi Mykhailiuk in the rotation. Judging from what we saw against New York, the answer has to be yes.
Hauser has developed into more than a situational defender. Sure, teams aren’t going out of their way to target him this year, but his hustle and effort will ensure he remains a defensive factor when he’s on the court.
I really liked this early defensive possession from Hauser and wanted to point it out.
Hauser defends three players on this position and gets across the court to contest a second-side action. Hauser hustles on defense. He had good size, good footspeed and has proven himself capable of hanging against starter-level talent. If Hauser can keep that production level going throughout the season, he should stay ahead of Svi in the rotation.
#8 Porzingis and Pritchard: A new second-unit duo?
I know, Porzingis is a starter. Not debating that in the slightest. However, NBA rotations are often staggered. Porzingis and Pritchard have flashed early signs of a developing two-man game throughout preseason. I jokingly Tweeted that the duo feels like a supercharged version of Phil Pressey and Kelly Olynyk, primarily due to the size disparity between the two players.
Pritchard with a gorgeous lob to Porzingis. The Pritch/KP 2 man Game can be very Special. pic.twitter.com/hgLeR7p9R1— ☘︎ (@CelticsRepublic) October 18, 2023
This lob play was beautiful. And then, it was followed up by this pick-and-pop possession that got Porzingis an easy three.
If the Celtics can develop some two-man upside with Pritchard coming off the bench, it will give them another dimension to their offense — not that they need any more.
#9 A solid possession from Tatum on defense
Loved this possession from Tatum early in the first quarter. Earlier this summer, he noted how he wants to earn himself an All-Defense selection; possessions like the one below are a good place to start.
Tatum finds himself being switched onto Mitchell Robinson (whose size and strength sometimes gave the Celtics problems.) Tatum fronts Robinson, allowing him to retain contact with his man while facing the action as it unfolds.
Miles McBride creates some space with an up-and-under move on Holiday. Tatum is right there to get the swat and kill New York’s offensive possession.
Tatum showed some solid basketball IQ with this possession. Not only is he dealing with the biggest (and probably strongest) player on the floor, but he’s also reading the offense and reacting to gaps in the Celtics' defense. Really encouraging sign.
#10 Horford coming off the bench
It’s preseason. We can’t read too deeply into lineups just yet. However, Horford coming off the bench felt telling. Horford is 37. He will be 38 before the season ends. Last season, Horford sat out the second night of back-to-backs. By coming off the bench, Horford could remain fresh throughout the season and potentially increase his availability.
Mazzulla could go to a double-big lineup to close out games. Horford can also start when one of the new starting five must sit a game for whatever reason. To start last season, I loved Boston’s single-big lineups. I felt the spacing was better, the decision-making was quicker, and everything flowed at a reliable pace. This season, there are two stretch fives in the main rotation.
You can keep that spacing when both bigs are on the court or have two high-level single-big lineups you can iterate through as needed. Horford’s move to the bench may or may not become permanent. The upside of him coming off the bench makes sense, though. And, of course, you can always tweak the lineups when matchups require — like games against the Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks.
Boston has one more preseason game remaining. They will play the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday, October 19. Hopefully, we get another look at the rotation we saw against New York, and maybe, we can get some more answers on Horford’s role for the upcoming season.