In the very early 2000s, I was in high school. The internet was in its infancy. Going viral meant that everyone in the recreational areas was listening to or playing the same thing. One of my earliest high school memories of this sort was when Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’” was released. I was an alternate kid for the most part. I loved rock, nu-metal, and hip-hop, and I played basketball in a country where not many saw the beauty in the game.
Watching the Boston Celtics get their third straight win at the expense of the New York Knicks brought those Limp Bizkit lyrics back. The Celtics are rolling right now. They’re going to keep on rolling, too. Two losses didn’t derail them. Their performance level didn’t drop. Neither did their effort. They just kept plugging away, and now they’re back on a winning streak and playing some exceptional basketball.
#1 Moving the rock
The Celtics ended the game against New York with 27 assists on 40 made shots. The Knicks had 17 on 33. There appears to be a growing trust within the rotation. Everybody is capable of knocking down their looks. Players are looking for each other every possession. We’re starting to see more actions run that are designed to create scoring opportunities for each other.
Coming into a game with a genuine talent gap over your opponent and still being the team to walk away with the most assists is a great sign moving forward. Boston has multiple isolation scorers. Almost everyone in the top 8 of the rotation can call their own number and get buckets. Avoiding the trap of one-on-one basketball would always indicate how good this team can be...so far; those indications are looking good.
#2 The new backcourt keeps on impressing
We all knew Jrue Holiday was going to improve the Celtics on the defensive end. I didn’t know how quickly he would fit into the system as a two-way threat and a connector in the backcourt. Holiday and Derrick White look like an ideal pairing. Both connect defense to offense. Both move well on and off the ball, connecting plays and creating gaps. Both can knock down their shots, create for others, or generate events with hustle plays.
I like to call these types of possessions “hustle creation.” Holiday gets his initial shot swatted by Isaiah Hartenstein. However, a moment of discombobulation from the Knicks big man lets Holiday hustle his way back into the play to generate a three-point play from Hauser, who is all the way back at the logo.
Later in the game, we see a similar brand of hustle creation from White. The Celtics miss a shot; the Knicks get on the break. White hustles back and steals the ball from Jalen Brunson, leading to a Jayson Tatum side-step three from the strongside corner.
White and Holiday both impacted the game defensively, too. White ended the contest with a 36.4 DFG%, limiting the Knicks to 4-of-11 shooting when he was contesting the shots. Holiday was 53.8%, holding his man to 7-of-13 from the field. We’re just 10 games into the new season; this partnership will only keep improving.
#3 Getting nerdy with it: Sidelines out-of-bounds plays
I’ve been tracking this for most of the season. Every coach in the NBA has their go-to plays from sideline out-of-bounds (SLOB) plays. Boston has utilized two with increasing frequency over the last few weeks.
The first one is what’s called a “slice.” It’s a backscreen set on the wings. The screen receiver can cut, post-up, or curl. In the past, when this action was run for a post-up, I would define it as a wedge, but I’ve since tightened up my labeling — every day is a school day!
Joe Mazzulla ran a SLOB slice action on three of their sideline possessions against the Knicks. Above is the first time the Celtics went with that play. It leads to Tatum getting the ball in the post, hitting his shot, and drawing a foul.
The second play Boston has been running is something out of their “Phoenix” series. That is, when there is a pin-down for the strong-side elbow, the pin-down receiver sets a pin-down for the weakside elbow, and the original player setting the weakside pin-down gets the rock. Usually, there will be a cutter to the wing to space the floor, too. Boston went to this late in the game against the Philadelphia 76ers, but the defense blew the action.
Here is how it looked when the Celtics went to one of their Phoenix series out of their SLOB plays against New York.
#4 The return of a fan-favorite
Last season, one of Boston’s go-to actions was Jaylen Brown back-cutting his man in transition and getting a quick pocket pass from Marcus Smart. It became a staple of Boston’s early offense and often led to easy points being put on the board. We haven’t seen much of that play this season. However, it looks like White could step into Smart’s role, as we saw against the Knicks.
I really hope we see more of this moving forward; it’s an easy play that often leads to fun finished from Brown in space.
#5 Talking of Jaylen Brown...
This was another good game. He looked aggressive on offense and made a huge impact defensively. Brown ended the game with a team-leading DFG% of 22.2%, limiting his opponents to 2-of-9 shooting from the field. He navigated screens well, cut off driving lanes, and got to his spots on offense.
One of the most encouraging signs from Brown recently has been his willingness to drop his shoulder and “bully drive” his way to the rim.
Brown is strong enough and athletic enough to be a serious threat when bullying his way to the rim. His mid-range game and catch-and-shoot ability from deep will mean defenses have to push up on him. Furthermore, we even saw Brown getting his fair share of touches in the post, which again leans into his mid-range shooting and explosiveness to bully his man out of the way.
Here’s a good example of running actions to get Brown into the post. Tatum sets a wedge screen for Brown. Brown flows into a ball screen for Holiday to create a mismatch and then posts up. He backs his man down, turns for the jumper, and draws the foul. Great process.
#6 Defending actions
I often discuss the Celtics' offensive actions, putting names to them and trying to break down why they worked or didn’t work. What I haven’t done much of is look at how the Celtics defend when other teams run actions against them. Two plays stood out to me against the Knicks.
The first was how the Celtics defended New Yorks’ “Ricky Zoom” action.
Ricky: A screen followed by a cut where the screener then flips their screen, and the cutter cuts back off the flipped screen - Watch Jalen Brunson’s movement in the below clip.
Zoom: AKA Chicago, a pin-down for a shooter in the corner who curls to the big man above the perimeter for a DHO...part of a team’s “Delay” series and a very common action in the NBA.
The first thing to note is how Holiday’s screen navigation blows up the “Ricky” action. The initial design was likely to get Brunson an open three or a mismatch to attack off the dribble. The Knicks counter by flowing into their Zoom set. Again, Holiday is on hand to pressure the ball and funnel the drive toward Kristaps Porzingis in the middle of the court.
Boston successfully forces a kick out, the three is missed, and a good defensive possession is in the books.
The second play that I liked was a “Wedge Floppy” from the Knicks, where the Celtics navigated a bunch of screens and pressured the ball throughout.
Wedge screen: An angled screen set toward the middle of the floor or opposite sideline - aimed at getting a player into the post.
Floppy: An old-school play with a staggered screen on one side of the court and a single screen on the other. A shooter can then choose which screen to curl his cut off to get open for a catch-and-shoot three.
This play is all Payton Pritchard. The wedge screen was likely designed to get Immanuel Quickley a clear run at a floppy action and lead Pritchard into one of two waiting screens. Pritchard navigates them well, forces Quickly off the ball after blocking his drive, and switches onto Brunson. Unfortunately, Brunson draws a foul. However, the Celtics killed two actions on this possession, and that’s a win for the defense.
#7 Speaking of the defense
A calling card of a good defense is how often they force late shot-clock attempts or force turnovers via the shot-clock expiring. Boston has been great at doing both. However, it’s their full 24-second defensive possessions that have me excited. Here are two for your perusal.
Something that I got taught playing basketball growing up that has always stuck with me is that good shooting nights will come and go — both individually and collectively — and the defensive effort will be there as long as you’re willing to fight on every possession. Love seeing plays like the two above because of that mindset.
#8 Jayson Tatum has RANGE
First and foremost, Jayson Tatum had a solid game. He dropped 35, led the team in assists, and was part of the rebounding unit that tied the Mitchell Robinson-led Knicks at 39 each. There are multiple plays/possessions we can pull to dive into Tatum’s performance. But, one late in the fourth stuck out to me. Not because it was silky smooth like his first-quarter snake to the rim. And not because it was an incredible feat of skill.
It was because of the range.
Sometimes, Tatum will hit us with an explosive highlight dunk to remind us that he can throw it down in traffic. Other times, he will shoot it from the locker room to remind us he has that kind of range when given the time and space to load up. Nothing overly impressive in terms of execution or anything, just a good old-fashioned fun possession.
#9 Getting nerdy with it part 2: Ghost Flare
If we’re being honest, most of today’s takeaways have been nerdy. But, please indulge me one more.
The possession in question is a two-man action between Prozingis and Brown. It starts with Brown setting a ghost screen for White before instantly receiving a flare screen from Porzingis. Brown catches the ball and drives “middle” to engage the defense, sucking in three defenders and causing Brunson to sag off the perimeter.
A jump pass back out to Porzingis leaves the impressive big man wide open, with two defenders sprinting out to contest his shot. No dice. Porzingis nails the three to boost Boston’s third-quarter lead.
#10 Dominating the hustle stats
The old cliche of “that team wanted it more” isn’t something I subscribe to. I do, however, subscribe to “that team fought harder” and look to hustle plays for whether or not that is the case. You can want something terribly bad but still not fight as hard as the person next to you. That doesn’t mean you didn’t care or were lazy; it just means you got outworked.
Boston outworked the Knicks on Monday night. They registered 24 deflections to the Knicks 13. They recovered 8 loose balls to the Knicks 5. They contested 48 shots to New Yorks’ 41. They recorded 12 defensive box-outs to the Knicks 4, and 13 overall box-outs to the Knicks 11.
The Celtics fought harder. They clawed for on every possession. When a team with this much talent also puts in the hard yards, they become a seriously tough opponent to beat.
Before we look ahead, I just wanted to thank fellow CelticsBlogger Oliver Fox, who stepped in to pinch-hit for me on Sunday while I struggled with an internet outage. He crushed it, and I hope you all enjoyed his work and the other work he does here on the site.
Now, looking ahead, the Celtics are back in action on Wednesday when they face the Philadelphia 76ers. After losing their last matchup, it will be interesting to see what changes Mazzulla makes to his overall scheme and how Boston looks to counter the two-man game of Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid. It’s going to be a fun one, no matter how the game plays out!
Still, I would definitely like to be writing another takeaways article talking about a fourth straight win and leveling the season series. Time will tell.