The Celtics open their season at Madison Square Garden following a competitive training camp. Jaylen Brown called it of the best of his career ahead. Boston seamlessly integrated two stars in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, discovered what an array of new bench players can provide, and tried to experiment with zone defenses and full court trapping. Jayson Tatum and Brown stepped into larger leadership roles while Celtics alumni like Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo stepped in and offered championship perspective.
Here’s what stood out from the first month around the Celtics entering a critical season:
1. Celtics are emphasizing sacrifice on a star-studded roster
Derrick White, Jrue Holiday and Al Horford all expressed a willingness to come off the bench on a roster that Joe Mazzulla believes has 7-9 starting caliber players. Mazzulla plans to start games by committee, mentioning on Sunday that he’ll court so many different groups to begin games that the starter label will become moot.
Holiday’s inclusion among that mix, which Mazzulla said isn’t just a Holiday vs. Horford discussion, came as some surprise and might’ve simply bought the coaching staff time to have discussions with Horford, who’s only come off the bench 14 times in his career. Mazzulla mentioning New York’s double big bench lineups points toward Horford coming off the bench on Wednesday at least, but the Celtics view sacrifice as a bigger theme than starting and coming off the bench. Pierce talked to Tatum about it over the summer, and Tatum took the need to make the entire roster feel involved his top priority.
“Everybody’s willing to sacrifice,” Porzingis said. “For a bigger goal ... it’s not that big of a sacrifice. If you’re winning, what are you sacrificing? Your own stats for winning? I’d do that trade every day. A little bit of everything, playing with these other talented players that you know can make stuff happen, and you can just be there to support if needed almost. I’m just going to play my game, and everybody’s going to play their game, and if all our stats dip a little bit ... who cares? We’re here to win. That’s it.”
2. Jrue Holiday expects a scoring role as much as a playmaking one
Holiday will balance a point guard role with a more off-ball, scoring threat as he prepares to play with two dominant scorers in Brown and Tatum, similar to how Marcus Smart navigated on and off the ball alongside the Jays. Mazzulla will integrate Holiday more heavily into late game lineups and hope his passing abilities that drove the Bucks at times during their championship pursuit will address some of the offensive stagnancy and turnover issues Boston had late during the last two playoff runs. Holiday averaged 7.4 assists per game sharing pick-and-roll responsibilities with Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Celtics will likely utilize his off-ball screening, shooting and cutting more than Milwaukee did. Holiday’s former teammate Rajon Rondo showed up to practice this weekend, and Holiday reminisced about how he learned about that role by watching Rondo.
“(There’s) a little more scoring (from point guards now),” Holiday said. “We knew Rondo could score, but he loved to pass, he loved to set people up. He loved to throw lobs and make passes that you didn’t think were there, which I think is a little bit of a lost art. I think I still have some of that in me, where I can still play-make and get guys open, but at the same time, I also can score. Whenever it comes, we know J.B. and J.T. are our guys, we know K.P. is a threat out there too with his scoring ability. So for me, it’s about setting them up. But at the same time, maybe it makes it easier for me to score, because they’re always gonna be locked in on them. There are going to be times where it gets a little stagnant, and maybe I do need to go to the line or get to the paint and try to get to the free throw line.”
3. Bench hierarchy fell into clear alignment
Payton Pritchard has solidified an every night role with his mix of scoring and playmaking. Sam Hauser did enough to stave off many contenders for the backup wing role. Luke Kornet, while acknowledging adjustments to new defensive concepts and teammates, remains a favorite as backup center despite strides by Neemias Queta. Watch for Dalano Banton, who Mazzulla loved as a defensive wing and offensive ball-handler, along with Lamar Stevens who made the team as a defensive, energy infusion for certain circumstances, including some time at the 5. Oshae Brissett, Svi Mykhailiuk and Jordan Walsh have more work to do to become regular contributors, but Boston now maintains ample flexibility for different matchups, shooting slumps, or injuries.
“The biggest thing is can you handle being in and out of the lineup,” Mazzulla said. “When your name is called, it’s because we really need you to execute your role and we really need you to help us win. At the same time, our development team has put a long-term development plan to say, we want you to be here by end of the season, All-Star break, postseason ... can you answer the bell when your name is called and can you get better every single day?”
4. Expect surprise looks from the Celtics defense
Mazzulla has challenged Porzingis to play up defensively as much as he’ll stay back and protect the rim in order to be unpredictable. Boston flashed some zone in the preseason after coaching it in Summer League. They pulled out a press last Tuesday against the Knicks, pulling Porzingis up to half court where he forced a turnover by deflecting a pass. That experimentation led Holiday to say getting used to the Celtics’ defense became his biggest adjustment upon arrival from Milwaukee. Other Boston players smiled and declined to get into details when asked about some of the defensive wrinkles they’d worked on.
Brown and Tatum both stressed becoming All-Defensive caliber players while Mazzulla aimed to find a curveball for the Celtics’ No. 2 defense from last season that fell to tenth out of sixteen playoff teams. Porzingis shined in the drop against pick-and-roll while Holiday often played communicator and organizer on the back line.
5. A mood change
Celtics ownership saw a different level of focus and determination at practice that reminded them of 2008. Pierce recognized it, too. The parallels already run close to getting overplayed, and even Pierce noted this Boston team drove deep in the playoffs several times and fell short around its core players. That’ll have to inspire Brown and Tatum as Holiday and Porzingis focus more on fitting in than leading. Still, their unfamiliar presence and the clear respect Boston’s stars carry for them changed the mood at practice and around the team. The floor that once filled with trick shots, laughs and an atmosphere that reflected college friends fooling around definitely shifted to a more business-like approach.
Everyone knows what’s at stake this year and their preseason play and long practices, sometimes double sessions reflected that. Sam Cassell’s presence alongside Tatum stood out, Charles Lee helped Holiday get comfortable after he arrived and Mazzulla sounds both more confident and calm.
“It’s time to perform. Now it’s time to take the work to real life,” Brown said. “We’ve been real clear in our roles, we’re clear in what we want to get accomplished, we’re clear in what actions we want to get into late in games — three-for-two situations, two-for-one situations, we’ve been able to really establish exactly what we want to do. Really good coaching.”