A win over the Philadelphia 76ers is always enjoyable. Getting that win in the year's opening game, preseason or not, makes things that bit sweeter. The Boston Celtics rolled out their new-look roster for the first time, and the early signs were encouraging.
Yes, the game was closer than it should have been. The Sixers didn’t have Joel Embiid or James Harden on the court. Yet, this iteration of the Celtics is still learning to play together. At times, it looked smooth. Others, there were errant passes, mistimed drives, and disjointed close-outs. It happens. You can’t expected everything to be seamless on day one.
Fortunately, there is a lot we can learn from 48 minutes of preseason basketball. We might not have the full blueprint, but at least we have the sketches for some areas of the game plan. Hopefully, we can use those sketches to get a better idea of what to expect moving forward.
This edition of the 10 takeaways will be light on clips because it’s preseason, and the NBA website has yet to upload them.
Still, here are 10 takeaways from the Celtics opening preseason game.
#1 Starting with double bigs
Personally, I was expecting Jrue Holiday to be part of the starting lineup against the Sixers. In my head, I had the starting five as Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum. I was wrong.
Mazzullla threw his first curveball. Maybe Holiday needs more time to acclimate to his new team. Or, maybe Mazzulla envisions the former NBA champion filling Malcolm Brogdon’s role as the Celtics sixth-man.
It’s far too season to be reading into lineups and rotations, but Holiday’s role is worth keeping an eye on throughout preseason.
#2 Kristaps Porzingis’ rim protection will be incredibly valuable
Making his Celtics debut, Porzingis provided some exciting flashes of what he brings to the table. Yet, it was his rim protection that immediately caught the eye. At 7’3’’, Porzingis is one of the best shot-detterants in the NBA, especially when operating as the dropping big.
On multiple occasions, we saw a member of the Sixers roster drive the lane only to be met by Porzingis around the rim. Countless attempts clanked off the iron. While other shots either fell short or were easy rebounds for Boston. Porzingis' presence will be a different type of rim protection from what Boston had from Robert Williams, but it will certainly be effective throughout the season.
#3 Lots of curl actions
This is where not having clips hurts.
Boston ran a ton of “curl” actions throughout the night. That is a screen for an off-ball player who curls around the screen before receiving the ball. Given the amount of scoring talent within the rotation, it makes sense the Celtics would lean on such an easy offensive option that gets the ball in the hands of a scorer on or around their spots.
Here is an example of a “curl” action from an early season game against the Atlanta Hawks. Don’t hate me. It’s the best I could do.
I liked this play out of the Celtics flex series yesterday— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) November 18, 2021
(they've run flex in the 4th in the last two games.)
Elbow entry pass - curl - flex screen - Tatum down screen - hand-off - drive middle. pic.twitter.com/yIGiSc4cFA
#4 Getting into the post
In an encouraging sign, the Celtics put some additional focus on working from the post. For a team that spent last season firing away from the perimeter at will, there appeared to be a focus on getting good-quality interior shots. Tatum was the focal point of the Celtics post offense, as he used his size and footwork to consistently draw the defense and get himself to the line.
Porzingis also had his moments from the mid-post, as did Brown. Still, seeing the Celtics prioritize some interior offense was a breath of fresh air and one that we will all be hoping continues.
Jayson Tatum ready to put that 12 pounds of new muscle to work in the post?— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) October 9, 2023
Tatum points per play on post ups + league percentile:
2022-23 -- 1.22 -- 94th
2021-22 -- 0.87 -- 33rd
2020-21 -- 0.93 -- 47th
Same PPP as Jokic last season (but far fewer post ups per game) pic.twitter.com/Ckz07jetjT
#5 Porzingis giving that SAUCE
There was a moment midway through the first quarter where Poringis hit a jab step to send his defender sliding across the court. At that moment, the statement “Tatum and Brown have never had a center like this” rings true. Porzingis’ ability to score off the catch, off the dribble, and to create space for himself is something the Celtics haven’t had during the current era.
Kristaps Porzingis gave a great glimpse of how imporant he can be for the Celtics on both sides of the floor.— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) October 9, 2023
He just scores so effortlessly: pic.twitter.com/WJZd3kSSFt
We might not see moments like that in every game. However, cooking a defender with some quick footwork on your debut isn't a bad way to introduce yourself to a fanbase.
#6 Holiday will bring more than point-of-attack defense
When the Celtics acquired Holiday, the thought process was that they’d replaced Marcus Smart’s point-of-attack defense and improved their perimeter-based offense from the guard position. In his first game for the Celtics, Holiday showed that he’s also an incredibly valuable help-defender and is capable of stifling an offense when pinching or rotating over to stunt at the ball-handler.
Jrue Holiday & Derrick White backcourt— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) October 9, 2023
Three defensive plays by those two that led to seven quick points by Jaylen Brown as the Celtics erased the six-point lead in two minutes. We are going to see a lot more of this, and I couldn't be more excited pic.twitter.com/U3RZC8sCIT
Holiday’s versatility on both sides of the floor will be a huge boost for the Celtics, especially if he can continue dominating matchups as a helper or switching onto a ball-handler.
#7 Payton Pritchard celebrated his new contract
So this is what $30 million gets you? Pritchard celebrated his contract extension by cooking the Sixers from the perimeter. The Oregon native hit 6 of his 11 perimeter shots and took over in the fourth quarter, dropping 16 of his 24 points. Pritchard is expected to have a bigger role this season. Coming out of the gates hot like he did isn’t a bad way to re-introduce yourself and prove that you’re ready for the season to come.
I know it's only the preseason, but...— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) October 9, 2023
we've seen Payton Pritchard doing it before
He got team-high 26 points on 6-11 from downtown against the 76ers just hours after agreeing to a 4-year $30 million extension ☘️ pic.twitter.com/sbc3ay1LNM
#8 Maxey found space against Boston’s drop defense
Porzingis may be an elite rim-protector, but that doesn’t mean he will solve all of Boston’s defensive issues. With every fix, there is a new problem that emerges. For the Celtics, it’s figuring out how to guard the space between the perimeter defenders and the dropping big. That puzzle will take some time to figure out.
Tyrese Maxey took full advantage of Boston’s drop defense as he continually attacked the space in the middle of the court, draining shots and making intelligent reads with very little defensive pressure to deal with.
#9 Some quick flashes of zone
All summer, Celtics fans have postulated about the team running some more zone defense. Mazzulla recently spoke of having “curveballs” during the postseason. Against the Sixers, we did see brief flashes of some zone defense being utilized. There was some 1-2-2, some 2-3, and some 3-2, all having a fleeting moment before the Celtics switched back to their standard defensive system.
As the postseason wears on, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Boston run more zone defense for longer stretches.
#10 Jrue Holiday & Payton Pritchard running guard-guard actions
Jrue Holiday and Payton Pritchard already appear to be on the same page. When on the court together, the two guards found themselves executing screening actions between each other. Generally, Holiday was the one setting the screen, while Pritchard would flare into space, allowing Holiday to either pop or roll into the paint.
If Holiday will spend some time coming off the bench or leading the second unit as part of the rotation pattern, the early signs of a partnership with Pritchard are encouraging. Of course, there will need to be variations in those screening actions in the coming months so that defenses don’t wise up and shut them down.
Holiday and Pritchard could be a fun duo throughout the season, even if that notion seemed unlikely 24 hours ago.