The Boston Celtics wrapped their preseason schedule with a dismantling of the Charlotte Hornets. Joe Mazzulla pulled his starters midway through the third quarter. Boston’s second unit continued to handle their business. So, in came the Celtics third-stringers for the fourth, and even that was too much for Steve Clifford’s beleaguered team.
We’ve learned a lot about this year's team over the past five games. There’s a lot more left to learn. We haven’t seen everything Mazzulla and his coaching staff are working on. What we have seen is incredibly encouraging.
Let’s dive into today’s takeaways.
#1 Stifling defensive pressure
The Hornets turned the ball over 24 times. Most of those errors were forced. There was a significant onus on intense ball pressure from the Celtics rotation. Active hands, solid point-of-attack defense, and quick switches forced the Hornets into uncomfortable situations.
Charlotte struggled to deal with the pressure. Breaking down the Celtics’ defense was too much of a tall order. Here’s an example of how Boston looked to set the tone early by pressuring an Iverson action from the Hornets, almost forcing an early turnover in the process.
Charlotte had been sped up for the rest of the possession, leading to a quick miss from the corner.
#2 Full court press
Sticking with the defensive pressure for a moment. The Celtics went back to their new 2-2-1 full-court press at times.
There’s no telling when the Celtics will switch gears and jump into their press defense. The randomness seems to be what’s hurting teams. Boston has so many high-level defensive pieces, all with exceptional physical attributes. When that pressure is turned up, it’s suffocating. You can see it through the screen.
It’s going to be exciting to see how the Celtics sustain and evolve this coverage throughout the season.
#3 Drag offense
Against the New York Knicks, the Celtics leaned heavily into their stagger offense. Against the Hornets, they went to their drag offense. Drag offense is an early screen in transition. The idea is to attack the defense before it’s set up. An early screen can force a disastrous mismatch or blow a wide-open coverage.
Boston opted to run a lot of double drag, with two screens in transition. Sometimes, those double screens are staggered. Sometimes not. What’s important is that they work. Two drag actions caught my eye in the first quarter.
In the above clip, the Celtics go to their drag series and run a simple drag slip, with Jaylen Brown slipping the screen to pressure the rim. Jrue Holiday hits Brown with a sweet entry pass. Terry Rozier’s quick hands blew up the play. The design worked, though. The Celtics will finish those looks more often than not.
Celtics stringing actions together. Love to see it.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 20, 2023
Double Drag. Stagger Veer. Zipper. PnR. Read and react
Sometimes it makes sense to string actions together. Multiple actions in succession bends the defense. Switches occur. Rotations are forced. And suddenly, the defense is two or three steps behind. I tweeted out the above possession for those reasons. The Celtics strung four offensive actions together in rapid succession.
What’s fun is the Celtics are still playing with pace when running these sets. They’re just looking to assert control over their opponents and generate high-quality looks in the process.
#4 Talking nerdy: Quick Flip
Last season, the Celtics ran a ton of quick actions, also known as wide actions. These are early offense sets that are designed to generate mismatches or early scoring opportunities. Mazzulla will likely implement his quick series throughout the upcoming season. Having Kristaps Porzignis as the screen also gives the Celtics some new options.
A quick action is when the big man sets a screen for the off-ball wing in transition. The off-ball wing then comes off the screen to get the ball in the middle of the court. In the above play, the Porzingis “flipped” his screen to give Boston a pick-and-roll action, allowing Tatum to utilize the screen and create space for a mid-range jumper.
#5 Neemias Queta's elbow actions
Neemias Queta has become Celtics Nation’s new fan favorite. The energetic big man has impressed when given the opportunity. During his minutes against the Hornets, Queta’s work on the elbows caught my eye. Under Ime Udoka, Al Horford was utilized in elbow actions, specifically in dribble hand-offs, to create space around the nail and provide rim pressure on the roll.
Late in the third quarter, Queta had two consecutive possessions where he ran elbow hand-offs before rolling to the rim. He secured offensive rebounds on both possessions and got the second chance bucket.
Utilizing Queta around the elbows and then having him roll to the rim will be a difficult scenario for defenses to deal with. Defenders need to switch the hand-off or risk being cooked off a dribble pull-up. Queta’s size makes him a lob target and a post-threat. It’s doubtful he gets significant minutes during the regular season, but when/if he does, I would expect to see him running more of these actions.
#6 Jayson Tatum defense
In the last edition of the takeaways, I pinpointed an early defensive possession from Tatum. I liked how he dealt with being switched onto Mitchell Robinson and kept himself positioned to affect the play as the Knicks looked to pressure the rim.
Against Charlotte, Tatum had another early defensive possession that stood out.
In this play, LaMelo Ball dislodges Holiday with a slight push-off. Tatum steps up to pressure the drive and sticks with the play, leading to a steal. From there, Tatum pushes the pace and generates an assist on the offensive end.
Seeing Tatum so engaged on both sides of the floor has been encouraging over the last two games. We could be looking at a defensive leap if this effort level holds throughout the season.
#7 Payton Pritchard's off-the-dribble creation
Payton Pritchard has been another stand-out star for the Boston Celtics during preseason. “Playoff P” has impressed with his scoring ability and ability to retain possession in tight spaces. What’s caught my eye, though, is his off-the-dribble creation. Pritchard’s playmaking heavily relied on pick-and-roll offense when he came into the NBA.
Prtichard is still at his best when utilizing a screener. However, throughout the Celtics preseason schedule, Pritchard has significantly improved his shot creation off the dribble — especially for others.
In the above clip, Pritchard creates space for himself off the dribble, drives toward the nail, and puts Rozier in jail. A slight hesitation as he blocks off Rozier allows Queta to position himself in the dunker spot. From there, Pritchard engages the big man before releasing the lob-pass for Queta. No pick-and-roll. Solid positioning and body usage.
In this clip, Pritchard utilizes a screen. He comes over, draws two, changes direction to create a passing angle, and fires a one-handed bullet pass to Queta for an easy dunk. Prtichard’s perimeter scoring has begun to create gravity for him, and now, he’s adding new wrinkles to his game to punish teams when they over-commit.
#8 Scram Switch
Over the last few seasons, the Celtics have avoided scram-switching when there’s a mismatch in the post. With Porzingis and Horford in the rotation, it would appear that Mazzulla and his coaching staff want smaller players switched out of those mismatches where possible. Under Brad Stevens, the Celtics had a lot of success by scramming out of mismatches. It will be interesting to see how frequently the Celtics look to utilize this type of switch during the upcoming season.
Here’s an example of Porzingis scramming Derrick White out of a mismatch on the strong side block. White rotates over to the weak-side corner. The Celtics collapse on the drive, and boom, a turnover.
#9 Let’s talk about Derrick White
I’m not one to pay much attention to player rankings. Everybody is going to have an opinion on which player sits where among his peers. However, it’s egregious that White isn’t considered a top-100 player. I’m sure we can all agree on that.
Against the Hornets, White was a versatile threat. He dropped 15 points, grabbed 4 boards, hit 2 assists, got 2 pilfers, and blocked 3 shots. White’s presence in the Celtics starting lineup is an incredible calming factor, and he continues to grow in influence and impact.
I loved White’s performance against Charlotte. And I have loved his hustle and effort since he joined the Celtics. He’s a top-100 guy. No Doubt. Here’s a clip of him getting a sweet block, too.
#10 Slot drives
The Celtics have an embarrassment of riches in terms of scoring versatility. As such, their spacing throughout the preseason has been stupendous. A byproduct of having such quality spacing is that slot drives become consistently available. Jaylen Brown took advantage of that availability when he hit the one-handed hammer late in the 2nd quarter.
We got another example of a slot drive from Holiday later in the game, too.
Boston has some highly athletic talents in their rotation this season. If the slot drive is consistently available, we’ll probably see some exciting highlights, and I, for one, am here for it.
On to the new season
The last five games have been preseason for me, too. I’ve had a chance to test-drive the takeaways and try to put my own spin on them. I’ll be here all season (God willing) and hope to be writing a heartfelt love letter after a Finals win. Before we get there, there’s an 82-game regular season to get through. That begins on Wednesday, October 25, with a game against the Knicks. Not long to wait!