Three games into the season and the Boston Celtics are still undefeated. Slowly but surely, we’re seeing an identity form on both sides of the ball. Yes, Joe Mazzulla’s team is still liberal from beyond the arc, but they’re also physical, aggressive and have been cooking opponents in the post and when driving toward the rim.
The Washington Wizards were the latest team to succumb to Boston’s two-way relentlessness. In truth, the writing was on the wall after the first quarter. However, unlike Celtics teams of the past, they never took their foot off the peddle.
#1 Avoiding a trap game
This was the Celtics' first trap game of the season. With no national coverage and an opponent in the early stages of a rebuild, the Celtics walked into a potential trap game. Rather than playing down to their opponent, Boston kept their intensity levels and jumped out to a monster lead. The Celtics never took their foot off the gas, leading them to sit their starters throughout the fourth quarter.
“Some would say we’ve learned from our mistakes from last season,” Tatum said during his post-game press conference. “We got a totally different team...We’ve been extremely close these last two years. We’re just trying to do everything we can to get over that hump.”
If the Celtics can avoid the pitfalls of letting their effort levels slip on “league pass nights,” that will go some way to developing good habits.
#2 Pritchard got what he wanted; it’s time to show up
In the build-up to the 2022 trade deadline, Payton Pritchard went on a mini press run about his desire to have a consistent role within an NBA rotation. He got his wish. Pritchard has played consistent minutes in Boston’s opening three games and has provided goose eggs in each of them. “Preseason P” needs to come out and play.
Yes, Pritchard dished out six assists and grabbed seven rebounds. He also went 0-for-8 from the field and led the game in turnovers (4) in 25 minutes of play. If Pritchard wants to keep his role as the Celtics bench guard, he must improve his performances.
#3 Giving Pritchard his flowers for a beautiful defensive possession
I’m nothing if not fair. Pritchard may have struggled against the Wizards, but he did have a stellar defensive possession in the third quarter.
The possession begins with the Wizards setting up a weakside stagger (stagger away) for Tyus Jones. Pritchard does a great job of “canceling” the screen by throwing himself in between the screener and Jones, blowing up the initial action.
Pritchard then switches on Delon Wright, navigates a screen, gets underneath his man, and forces the ball out of his hands. The possession ends in a miss, with the Wizards scrambling to find a quality look after Jones’ participation in the possession was nullified.
#4 Dominating the glass
The Celtics currently rank second in the NBA for team rebounds. For years, controlling the glass has been an issue for this team's core. Now, everybody is pitching in on both sides of the court, and it’s leading to a higher level of control, along with some easy second-chance opportunities. Boston ended the game with 51 boards. Seven members of the rotation had five or more rebounds in the game. Hauser led the way with eight.
Of those 51, 15 came on the offensive glass. Boston turned those 15 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points. It may not have made much of a difference in a blow-out game; however, there will be nights where a big effort on the offensive glass is why the Celtics squeaked out a win.
#5 Getting nerdy with it: Corner pin-downs
As I mentioned in the last edition of the takeaways, the Celtics are running a principal-based offense. It’s not often they’re going to design players. One of the major principles the Celtics have adhered to thus far is running empty-side actions, where there isn’t a shooter in the strong-side corner. Boston has been building on that concept over their first three games.
Now, they’re triggering those empty side actions running corner pin-downs before flowing into ball screens.
The above possession is a solid example of Boston’s corner pin-downs into empty-side ball screens. Here, Kristaps Porzingis sets the pindown for Jaylen Brown. Once Brown receives the pass, Porzingis sets a step-up screen, allowing Brown to attack the space created by not having a shooter deep in the corner.
In fairness, the Wizards' defense does a good job of taking away the driving lane. Jordan Poole has rotated over as the weakside low man and is waiting around the paint to get his body in front of Brown’s. So, the All-NBA wing goes into his bag and drains a mid-range jumper instead.
Sometimes, the corner pindown isn’t needed. Boston’s top-end talent is so versatile they can receive a hand-off on the wing and be an instant threat. That’s exactly what happened in the below action, where Jayson Tatum receives a side dribble hand-off from Al Horford before the duo flow into an empty side screening set.
#6 Jaylen channels Tatum
Both Brown and Tatum had solid nights. Brown got to his spots. He was aggressive without forcing the issue. He defended well, took care of the ball, and hit impressive buckets throughout the contest. However, one stood out. Not because it was his best shot of the night. Or because it was a timely bucket to shift momentum. Instead, because it’s a shot, we would expect to see from Tatum.
With the ball in his hands on the wing, Brown went to Tatum’s patented side-step three...and he laced it. I mean, nothing but nylon.
I could go into great detail about Brown’s stellar performance, but I’m sure someone else will have me covered there. Instead, I just wanted to point out Brown’s confidence level and note how he’s clearly expanded his scoring skillset over the summer.
#7 Running through Porzingis
Boston’s embarrassment of riches means they can go to the hot hand throughout the game. At times, the offense ran through Brown; at others, Holiday was controlling the flow of the game. Yet, when Tatum was off the court, and the Celtics wanted to create something in the half-court, Porzingis acted as the trigger man. When I say “trigger man,” I’m referring to the player that is used to trigger an action, and players begin their movements once that player has played his role (usually by receiving the ball or setting a screen.)
Post-entry passes. Delay actions (when the big man has possession above the perimeter in a five-out offense) or as a screener. Porzingis had his fingerprints on everything for multiple stretches of the game.
Here is a beautiful pass out of the delay.
And here is some of the best post-creation we will see this side of Christmas.
#8 Dunker spot Jrue
In one of the opening plays of the game, Jrue Holiday was in the dunker spot. He relocated to remove his man from the paint, allowing Porzingis an easy slip to the rim for a layup. Holiday’s movement was essential to the play. I noticed it pretty quickly and got really excited to include it in today’s takeaways. Here’s that possession.
Then, just a few minutes later, the Celtics return to the same action and get the same result. Credit to Brian Scalabrine, he picked up on this during the live broadcast and gives a solid breakdown on air. Here’s that second possession.
Holiday spent a lot of time operating in the dunker spot area as part of Boston’s inverted five-out system. By inverted, I mean that the guards are occupying the corners while the wings and bigs are running things around the top of the perimeter. Holiday’s passing ability, decision-making, and jump-shooting make him a solid option to be an inverted dunker spot — as we saw with his movement on the above two plays.
#9 Bench issues
This was the first time we got a look at the Celtics full bench mob. With a full quarter of basketball to play, we could see how each member of the bench rotation would fare during an NBA game. Especially with the Wizards fighting for pride at that point. The results were a little concerning.
The bench rotation went seven-of-25 from the field, 4-of-17 from deep, and were outscored 32-to-18. The defense lost its aggression. The offense was stagnant. Of course, if Pritchard and Hauser are hitting their shots, things look very different. If both shooters are converting, the Wizards' defense opens up, and easy looks begin to materialize around the rim.
Boston shouldn’t be relying on two sharpshooters to carry their bench mob, though. If the offense is built around rim pressure, post-control, and perimeter scoring, there needs to be all three aspects littered throughout the bench. What we saw was concerning. But it’s a small sample size. Something we should probably keep our eye on and watch as it continues to evolve.
#10 Moving the rock
With so much talent littered throughout their roster, being selfless with the ball and creating high-quality shots is integral. The Celtics needed the game against Washington with a team assist percentage of 60.8%. The team scored 51 buckets, 31 of them came via an assist. The roster is playing for each other. They’re looking for the best shots available and making timely decisions.
The sample size is still small, but so far, the ball movement looks vastly improved to previous seasons, and that’s an encouraging development at such an early stage of the season.
Who’s up next?
Next up is the Indiana Pacers. Tyrese Haliburton has started the season well and is currently leading the league in assists per game. He will pose a different type of threat to the Celtics defense, which will create a fun matchup to follow throughout the game. We will also get to see former Celtic Aaron Nesmith, who has developed into a valuable role-player for the Pacers since being traded there last summer.
Boston will be favored to win the game. They will have to navigate another “trap,” setting.