BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla nearly chose a surprise starter for Sunday’s preseason opener to emphasize that who opens the game won’t forecast any regular season decisions. Derrick White and Al Horford returned to the floor alongside the Jays and Kristaps Porziņģis, unsurprising to anyone in the raucous preseason crowd at TD Garden on Sunday. However, who came off the bench did raise an eyebrow.
Jrue Holiday’s debut came halfway through the first quarter, showing the remaining work in both acclimating the guard and building a regular season rotation.
“He came the day before practice, so I think that played a part in it,” Joe Mazzulla said. “But at the end of the day, like I said all week, we have seven, eight, nine starters, guys that could start and finish. The preseason is being able to experiment with different lineups and our guys are open-minded. They’re ready to play together, they’re ready to sacrifice, they’re ready to do whatever it takes to win, and so there are going to be a bunch of different lineups, especially during the preseason, and then we’ll be able to keep that open mind and that flexibility throughout the year.”
Holiday shot 2-for-10 and scored six points as he tried to shake the rust off after a turbulent week where the Bucks and Trail Blazers both traded him, leading his wife Lauren to write about the experience. He grabbed five rebounds and threw one assist and a turnover in 21 minutes, recording two steals and mostly playing off-ball.
His mix of defensive skills shined, and he spent some time with the starters in place of Horford in the second half. It’s difficult to imagine the team’s four stars will spend any time coming off the bench this season, but Mazzulla’s willingness to assess lineup balance in multiple ways, while teasing a starting lineup by committee approach, underscores how difficult that decision on the fifth spot could prove to be.
White, last season’s most pleasant surprise while starting 70 games, began the exhibition taking the ball up the floor. Horford, a starter for all but 14 games in his 16-year career, combined with Porziņģis to produce an exciting double-block as part of an intriguing defensive start to the game. Both of Boston’s starting-level guards can produce All-Defense level play in different ways, making depth both a luxury and challenge each night for a new-look group.
“I think it’s just about time,” Holiday told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog. “Time on the court, getting a chance to play with them, and see what’s going to happen, see where I’m supposed to be and where I’m going to get the ball and things like that, but (tonight was) real fun. Glad I got to go out there and play.”
Holiday missed a floater catching a dump-off pass from Jaylen Brown and pull-up three attempt on his first two sets into the game. He hit his first three trailing the play after Sam Hauser grabbed an offensive rebound following a Tatum miss, pitching the ball to Holiday, who stepped into a three and hit it. Holiday created a three off the dribble in the second, but mostly initiated the team’s fast break on the defensive boards while White and Brown ran in transition, and Payton Pritchard manned the ball into the second units.
That didn’t bother him with Porziņģis shining, Brown heating up between the second and third, and Pritchard closing on the way to a win over a Philadelphia team that sat Joel Embiid and James Harden. Mazzulla saw numerous possibilities, even flashing a hint of some zone defense when Holiday and the starters took the floor in the third, while Holiday made impacts on the ball, floating as a help defender in the kind of versatile effort that led Boston to pursue him so aggressively.
“(Acclimating to) the squad, that’s actually fairly easy. Really smart players that make the game easy for me. I know I got a lot of wide open shots, and gotta knock those in, but a lot of smart players, a lot of talent here ... a lot of versatility,” Holiday said. “I can go help and rebound. I can talk back side and tell people where to go and what to do. Definitely something a little different.”
Holiday and White should start and assume more responsibility while Horford almost certainly sits the second half of a surprising preseason back-to-back in New York, the start of three games in four days. The schedule gives Mazzulla’s staff an early attempt at roster management. Many of the Celtics’ regular contributors exceeded their expected 15-20 minutes as Mazzulla appeared intrigued by the prospect of mixing-and-matching and experimenting. Boston courted 10 different lineups in the win despite only nine players appearing.
That process slowed in the second half, when Mazzulla let his starters ride through a third quarter where Holiday shined brightest with a bounce pass to Brown for a transition dunk. Mazzulla only substituted four times as his starting and second units produced go-ahead and game-securing runs.
He even raced onto the court clapping his hands to challenge a foul call on Oshae Brissett’s put-back dunk, in winning mode already as Holiday and the team’s other newcomers saw the vision despite the inevitable bumps involved with integrating to a new team. Holiday, who admitted nerves in his first practice, might take more time. Porziņģis, who arrived in Boston weeks ago, hit the ground running.
“Open space, (Kristaps) is another target, another shooter where you have to guard him,” Holiday said. “If you don’t guard him, he’ll do what he did tonight. I feel like driving lanes are gonna be a lot more wide open, guys like J.B. and J.T. are gonna get to the basket a lot easier. You can’t help off and it just makes the game easier for everybody.”