The term “role player” is usually reserved for the second unit, but in the scope of how five-man lineups work together, starters have roles too, especially on this Celtics team. All-Stars will have to stand in the corner to space the floor. All-NBA selections have to set screens. Everybody needs to defend and rebound.
“We’ve been real clear in our roles,” Jaylen Brown said at the close of the preseason. “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.”
Throughout training camp, to a man, the stars emphasized sacrifice and making each other better. Brown talked about finding Kristaps Porzingis off of screen actions. Porzingis raved about having so much room to work playing with Brown and Jayson Tatum. Jrue Holiday said that there will be times when he’ll have to be a playmaking point guard and other times when he’ll need to be a scorer.
In the Celtics 108-104 win at Madison Square Garden, Jayson Tatum and Kristaps Porzingis stole the headlines, combining on 64 points including 18 of Boston’s 26 points in the fourth quarter against the Knicks.
However, the box score belies the contributions the rest of the team. Holiday was the primary defender on former teammate, Julius Randle; the Knicks big man made just five of his 22 field goal attempts. Al Horford, coming off the bench for just the 15th time in his lengthy career, made two big threes down the stretch. Brown, after a rough start, led the team in assists and made some big plays as the team’s primary playmaker to close out the third.
“He just had to regain his composure,” Mazzulla said of Brown and his changing role on this roster. “Once he did, he made three really good plays, one to DWhite, one to KP, and another one. And then we ran a horns action and he was able to get into a switch and a 2-on-1. He’s going to fit in as a secondary ball handler and a guy we can play three-man actions with and be a screener.”
Of course, the big story out of the Big Apple was Porzingis. Before the game, Mazzulla raved about having two do-everything big men. “It allows us to play spaced, disciplined basketball because our 5s are skilled. They can pass, they can shoot, they can dribble. It gives us an advantage because we’re able to play off of them. It’s very important we stay disciplined in our spacing, disciplined in our matchup recognition, disciplined in our physicality and execution,” Mazzulla said.
The Celtics tallied just 18 assists in an uneven Opening Night, but over a third of them (7) were to Porzingis. Whether he was working out of the pick-and-roll/pop or playing off the ball, Boston’s newest big man was a large focus of New York’s defense.
“He has an innate ability to put two on the ball,” Mazzulla said. “He’s a magnet.”
You can see how all the pieces are starting to fit already despite some unfamiliar faces in unfamiliar places. That’s Holiday spacing into the corner, Brown posting up at the free throw line, and Tatum acting as a screener. The play results in Porzingis cutting out of the corner and Derrick White hitting him with a lob. If you were to right this script in the offseason, you would have probably cast Porzingis as the screen, Brown working baseline, and Holiday as the pick-and-roll ball handler.
Alas, everyone is getting used to new roles. Porzingis had a historic debut in green and Tatum was Tatum, but it wasn’t a perfect debut for Boston’s Big 6. Mazzulla knows that it’s early and it’ll take time to develop chemistry and know each other tendencies. Holiday mentioned the need for more ball movement.
The morning after their first game, it’s hard not to think that this is all still obviously a work in progress, but the elder statesman like what he saw. “Excited for what we showed. Our attention to detail on the defensive end was really good. The execution was good on offense, especially late in the fourth,” Horford said. “I thought our guys did a really good job recognizing and making the right plays time after time.”
It’s just one game, but a win’s a win. The smile on Kristaps’ face says it all.