With a week left until Opening Night, the Celtics played the Knicks for the second time in the preseason before facing,,,the Knicks on October 25th. They’ll play four times in nearly a month (with their second regular season game schedule on November 13th), but don’t worry about familiarity breeding contempt, at least any more than normal between the Atlantic Division rivals.
In their first meeting last Monday, Boston trotted out their B-team with their top-6 resting with New York giving their regulars some run in front of the Madison Square Garden faithful. The tables were turned on Tuesday night when the Celtics played as close to a regular season rotation we’ll see before training camp closes and the Knicks went with their deep bench.
A bit of gamesmanship for sure with the teams set to kick off the season on Wednesday, but if Tom Thibodeau was expecting to gather intel in the hopes of starting 1-0, there may be few predictable chinks in the Celtics armor.
“The good thing about our guys is that they’re relatively flexible in their substitution patterns. We’ve changed both Tatum and Brown and Al at different points. I think it’s a little bit matchup-based,” Mazzulla said after Monday’s practice. “At the same time, how can we create advantages? How do we get guys on the floor that play together really well? It’s really a balance of both, but we don’t have anything set in stone right now.”
With all top-6 available on Tuesday and Mazzulla wanting to get closer to regular season minutes for them, he started Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kristaps Porzingis with Al Horford coming in as the sixth man.
Throughout training camp, the crux of the starting lineup argument has been who would be that fifth Beatle: Derrick White, who was informally announced as the starting point guard earlier this summer, or Al Horford, who has only come off the bench 12 times in his lengthy career? On a more existential note, will the Celtics try to match opposing teams in terms of size, skill sets, and play style or will they be able to force teams to match them instead?
It’s just the preseason, but my guess is that it will be the latter.
This team has a chance to be good, really good, and it’s not going to matter who starts or comes off the bench. After the win against the Knicks, Brown talked about trying to find Porzingis in screen actions. Tatum talked about everybody having to sacrifice, a lesson hammered home workout-after-workout with the 2008 Finals MVP, Paul Pierce. Mazzulla commended Horford for “always making the right play on both ends of the floor.”
Whatever the situation is going to be — whoever is going to start, whoever, whenever — honestly, I don’t think these guys care,” Porzingis said. “All we care about is winning and playing the right way.”
It all may sound like lip service for this mutual admiration society, but there’s been a different vibe around this team. “Business-like” would be too harsh. Porzingis was just added over the summer and Holiday hasn’t even found a place to live in Boston. It’s been more meet-and-greet rather than cold and calculated game planning because chemistry is tricky thing. Just ask those 2018 and 2019 teams. However, with these Celtics, you can see the seeds of greatness being planted.
“We have a willing team that’s willing to incorporate everybody and we just have to continue to learn about each other and how we can make each other better on the floor,” Mazzulla said.
Whether they start small or double big, it doesn’t seem to matter. With a top-6 that has very few weaknesses and a second unit focused on accentuating their strengths, Boston will go into 2023-2024 with a revamped roster and more so, a different mindset. Consider the narratives that suffocated this team the last two years: Can Brown and Tatum co-exist together? Should Mazzulla coach this team? Is Marcus Smart the point guard of a championship team?
Those have all been replaced with good problems like having too many starter-quality players.