What a way to start the new NBA season. The Boston Celtics won a slobber knocker against their division rivals, and they had to show character and fortitude to get it done. Isaiah Hartenstein gave his first audition to be the NBA villain this season. Mazzulla and his coaching staff sprung a few surprises.
Best of all, the Celtics overcame adversity and won while not at their best. Of course, there are areas to improve — it was the first game of the season, can’t expect everything to be running smoothly. Still, it was a fun, closely-fought game that gave us plenty to ponder while we wait for Friday’s Eastern Conference Finals rematch against the Miami Heat.
#1 Points in the paint
The Celtics scored 42 points in the paint. They pressured the rim, ran actions out of the post, and looked to create defensive rotations whenever possible. It was an inside-out brand of basketball, rather than the outside-in style we saw them adopt last season. What I liked the most is that Boston attacked the rim despite Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein anchoring the defensive paint.
It’s easy to apply rim pressure on teams that lack legitimate size in the middle. Doing so against a team with two legitimate 7-foot bigs shows a shift in offensive focus.
Many rim attempts came via half-court offense, with a good example being the Derrick White reverse in the clip above. Shoutout to Jaylen Brown for the sweet dish, too. However, the Celtics also racked up the paint points in transition — 6 of them coming via third-quarter leak-outs.
If the Celtics are going to pressure the rim throughout the season and pick when to kick out to shooters for perimeter jumpers, we could be in for a fun style of play. I really hope so!
#2 Jayson Tatum inside work
Sticking with the interior play for a moment, there was a clear shift in focus from Jayson Tatum. Boston Sports Journal’s John Karalis recently shared a conversation he had with Sam Cassell, where the topic of Tatum developing his post-game was discussed.
“Once he grasps that portion of his game,” Cassell told Karalis. “He’s hard to stop now … he’s going to be very, very hard to stop. … with his back to the basket, it leads to him picking teams apart.”
Against the Knicks, Tatum began his journey to “grasping” his back-to-the-basket play. It wasn’t always on the post. Sometimes, he backed him man down from the mid-range area before facing up. Other times, he looked to create out of his position.
I really liked the flashing of post-up playmaking from Tatum. In the above clip, he finds a curling Jrue Holiday with the wrap-around pass; it’s a basic action but has so much potential to become another layer on how to utilize Tatum’s skillset.
And here’s Tatum posting up and using his size to back his way into a scoring position. Ends up drawing a foul and sinking both free throws. A back-to-the-basket game is still a work in progress, but the early signs have been encouraging.
#3 Getting nerdy with it: empty side pick-and-rolls
Boston didn’t utilize many set actions in their game against New York. Instead, they flowed with the principal-based offense. One of those primary principles appeared to be utilizing empty-side screening actions. Essentially, this is any action where the strong-side corner is empty. The logic is that it opens up that side of the court more. No spot-up shooter also means no defender.
If you drive an empty side, a defender has to rotate over. From there, you can either attack the defense or swing a pass to the open man.
Here is an empty side pick-and-roll action that sees Kristaps Porzingis slip the screen and roll into space. An easy pass from Jaylen Brown springs the big man free. Before making the pass, Brown takes a few steps inside the perimeter, engaging Robinson, forcing Jalen Brunson to rotate over and contest Porzingis.
That leaves Holiday open in the weakside corner if Porzingis feels pressure from Robinson rotating back toward the rim. However, New York was slow to react, and it was an easy dunk.
Here’s another example of how Boston generated offense with their empty-side actions. A quick step-up screen from Porzignis creates a ton of driving space for Tatum. Some nifty footwork, a bucket, and the foul. Boston went to this style of pick-and-roll offense frequently and generally found good results.
#4 Active hands
One thing you’ll get to know about me as we go through the season together and I produce these takeaways articles is that I value deflections. Why? Deflections = an active defense. Players had active hands. They were in the passing lanes. And, most of all, they disrupted the offensive flow.
Boston ended the game with 20 deflections. Tatum led the way with six. Brown came in second with four. Holiday and White tied for third with three each.
It’s hard for an offense to find a rhythm when the ball is constantly being poked loose or you’re forced to reset with the clock winding down. Deflections are a hustle stat for a reason. More of that, please.
#5 3rd quarter defense
Overall, both teams played some solid defense. And they have their bad moments, too. However, two defensive possessions in the third quarter provided a glimpse into the type of rearguard unit this Celtics team can become throughout the season.
Both of these defensive possessions have one thing in common: pressure. The Celtics locked in and ramped up their activity. They forced the Knicks to go to their third and four actions, as they tried to find gaps to attack. Boston forced New York to use their shot clock on both occasions (granted the 2nd clip was from a SLOB with 12 seconds left) — regardless, moments like these can be glimpses into what the future holds as everybody gets more accustomed to playing alongside each other.
#6 Protecting the glass
New York won the offensive rebounding battle 17-7. That’s 10 extra second chance opportunities. Boston has the size and rim protection. However, against a bruising team like New York, who have Robinson, Hartenstein, and Julius Randle powering their way around the paint, defending the glass can be troublesome.
The Celtics need to pick their men up higher when boxing out. Limit players crashing the glass. And, as Brad Stevens would say, commit to rebounding by committee.
Offensive rebounds should never be as easy as the one depicted above. If a big has his defender boxed out, get an extra body on him, or scram switch for a better position. Don’t just accept you’ve lost the positional battle.
#7 Jaylen Brown struggled at times
Jaylen Brown struggled for stretches. There were some tough moments. It’s worth remembering this was the first game of the season. He’s talented enough and experienced enough to quickly bounce back. Still, it would be disingenuous to gloss over the performance and act like everything was rosy.
The first thing that stood out to me was how much Brown struggled to navigate screens as a defender. He frequently got taken out of possessions for multiple seconds, allowing his man to saunter to their spots before making their reads.
I’ve used the above possession as an example for two reasons. One, because Brown was in no-man land for a hot second. And two, because this is an example of when to go under. Typically, defenders are taught not to go under the screen against pull-up shooters. It’s a surefire way to get a three drained in your face. However, in this instance, Holiday is already cheating. If Brown goes under, Holiday would dig to negate the risk of a pull-up three, giving Brown a chance to recover.
Hopefully, mistakes like these are due to limited playing time together and due to some early-season rust. If Brown wants to be an All-Defense candidate this year, he’s got to navigate screens at a higher level.
Then we had this possession. A lack of court awareness and a typical case of tunnel vision. These are the plays that frustrate me. You don’t need to click into the clip to see the problem here. I mean, Tatum is literally all alone in the weak slot. An All-NBA first-team forward with no one near him. Got to be better there.
This play is less of an issue for me. It was just overly ambitious. Still, I wanted to include it because I like the confidence. Brown will be better. But some issues definitely need tightening up.
I’m sure someone will dive into his performance in more detail.
#8 Jrue Holiday on Julius Randle
About two hours before tip-off, I jumped on a “Spaces” with my co-hosts of the “Green With Envy” podcast. One of the topics we discussed was who would guard Julius Randle. After all, Randle is a physically imposing forward, and with Tatum moving up to the four spot, the matchup could prove difficult.
Enter Mazzulla and his newfound love of curveballs.
Holiday was the man selected with the unenviable task of trying to keep Randle quiet throughout the game. Here’s how it started.
Here’s how it finished.
Julius Randle shot 1-of-10 when matched up against Jrue Holiday last night.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 26, 2023
According to NBA Stat’s matchup data, Holiday matched up with Randle on 23.9 partial possessions, totaling 6:17 of playing time. Randle went 1-of-10 in those possessions, drawing 2 shooting fouls. However, he did generate 4 assists. Excellent job by Holiday against one of the stronger and more talented forwards in the conference.
#9 Getting nerdy with it part 2: Porzingis as the corner spacer
We didn’t see this set-up much. From what I recall, it occurred twice in the first quarter, and then Boston disappeared. Porzingis got the opening shot of the game by occupying the strong-side corner. Shortly after, he returned to provide some elite floor-spacing and a high-level cutting option.
Porzingis in the corner feels like a cheat code. He can score off the catch, drive a close-out, relocate inside, and duck-in to post position. Or, he can do what he did here: wait for the big man to be engaged by the ball-handler and back-cut for an easy lob. Love the design. Love the execution.
#10 Another curveball
I’ll keep this final takeaway short. Mazzulla went with some double-big lineups throughout the game. I didn’t expect a double-decker big-man duo of Porzingis and Luke Kornet. Two mobile 7-footers who can both operate as drop defenders and have the length to disrupt passing lanes. Offensively, they’re both valuable screeners and do their work in different ways.
The pairing of Porzingis and Kornet lasted for 2 minutes and 42 seconds. It’s probably not a lineup we will see for stretches, but it could be useful in certain situations when rim protection and shot deterrence are at a premium.
It wasn’t an easy win. Boston had to dig deep and stay united in the face of adversity and some tough foul calls. However, the first win is in the books. The season is officially underway, and the Heat are up next. Let me know your thoughts from the game in the comments!