Make it four straight wins for the Boston Celtics. Make it 1-1 between the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers in their season series. Without Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis, Boston’s guard duo stepped up and helped lead their team to another win, bringing the Celtics season record to 9-2. Al Horford was huge, too.
As you would expect, the game was physical. It got mucked up at times. Yet, the Celtics' new “never say die” attitude prevailed. Let’s dive into it.
#1 Al Horford’s big night
Al Horford hasn’t enjoyed a seamless transition into his new bench role. However, he found himself back in the starting five on Wednesday and made sure he reminded everybody what he was capable of. Horford has never been a score-first guy. His impact occurs in the margins. Yet, one thing we’re sure of is he knows how to lock down Joel Embiid and anchor a defense.
Five blocks. Horford ended the game with five blocks to his name. Two of them came against the reigning MVP.
Another came as a help defender rotating over to protect the rim.
Horford is great at defending angles. He uses his body to cut off lanes or to force ball-handlers to go where he wants them to. Then, he looks to neutralize the threat by forcing a contested shot, a pass, or getting his hand to the ball. Without Porzingis in the rotation, Horford’s steadying presence was a blessing.
Of course, it also helped the veteran big man with eight rebounds and was mobile within the Celtics' overall defensive system.
#2 Sticking with Al for a moment
Five. That’s how many threes Horford had made this season heading into the Sixers game. He almost doubled his season tally in one night, dropping four from deep. Three of those perimeter shots came in the third quarter.
Boston won the first quarter with their pace and hustle. Philadelphia matched that effort to win the second quarter. Heading into the third, it was anybody's game. Horford’s sudden shot-making gave his team the boost they needed as they clawed for momentum throughout the third.
Last season, Horford was one of the best perimeter shooting bigs in the NBA. Seeing him snap out of his funk to put 12 points on the board and space the floor was fun to watch and important for how the Celtics approached the game.
#3 Derrick White to the rescue
Derrick White has been one of the Celtics' most impactful players since the All-Star break of last season. However, he sometimes put the Celtics on his back on Wednesday. Anyone watching the Celtics feed of the game probably heard Brian Scalabrine calling for the team to run high pick-and-rolls to get White onto his right hand.
The reason for this was simple: Philadelphia couldn’t contain his floater game when he was attacking off the dribble and had room to release the shot with his right.
Philadelphia primarily runs a drop defense — the same as the Celtics. That means there is usually space around the nail, especially if you’re a threat to pressure the rim. White was making the most of the space in the mid-range, getting paint touches before letting his floaters glide over the top of the defense.
White’s rim pressure was a focus of the Sixers' scouting plan. They looked to shut up shop around the rim and force White to beat them from the free-throw line. Bad plan. White went 9-of-10 from the charity stripe and led the game in gimmies. His slitheriness allowed him to continually put the defense in tough spots, forcing them to foul or try to contain the drive.
#4 Film Room: Motion Strong Thru Slice
New name for the segment, the same old X’s and O’s stuff.
For the most part, the Celtics ran a free-flowing offense against the Sixers. Everything was designed out of read-and-react principles, and very few actions were run during the game. Which was a stark juxtaposition to what we’d seen against the New York Knicks.
Still, one action that I really liked was a combination of movements. When this happens, I tend to just name the action after the movements. In this case, we get “Motion Strong Thru Slice.” Let’s take a quick look.
Motion Strong is when two passes reverse the ball. In this instance, it went from Jayson Tatum to White, to Payton Pritchard. Once that happens, the team sets a stagger screen on the weak side.
Thru is when a player receiving a stagger screen curls over the first screen and cuts through the gap between the screeners. Slice is a back-screen on the wing.
I liked this play because it forced the defense to rotate over and pick up Pritchard while defending a potential guard-guard action with White. Svi Mykhailiuk’s slice opened up Tatum to cut across the court and duck into a post-up position. Tatum got the mismatch with Tyrese Maxey and nailed the shot.
A fun and functional play design.
#5 Tatum in the post
I will keep banging this drum all season, as I’m sure many of us will. Tatum’s willingness to work out of the post is a major development for his overall game and the Celtics offense. As an observation, he does seem to favor the left side of the court when working in the post.
Still, he’s developing counters, can face up and attack off the dribble, and looks to be a more complete three-level scorer now that he’s consistently adding the post play into his scoring profile.
#6 A Dalano Banton sighting
This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen Dalano Banton on the court, but it was probably the most meaningful minutes he’s played this season. Banton brings size and length to the rotation; he hustles, can handle the ball, and runs some pick-and-roll action. He struggled to get his shot to drop but did have one nice play when he hustled back after a miss to poke the ball loose and initiate a transition bucket #hustlecreation.
#7 Are Jrue ready?
Just like White, Jrue Holiday stepped into a bigger role for the Celtics and had his fingerprints all over the game. His ability to put in work on the glass, run the offense, create for himself, and defend at a high level were all on show against the Sixers.
Here’s a solid defensive possession that turns into a run-out for Boston. Holiday gets the steal and the bucket.
And here he is, rotating over to get a perimeter block on Robert Covington. Boston’s guard duo of Holiday and White is a serious weapon for the Celtics. They are high-level two-way threats at their position and have been growing in impact, individually and collectively. Holiday and White did a great job of stepping up with two of the top three guys out.
#8 Film Room: Pitch Aheads
The Celtics looked to push the pace wherever possible. Throughout the game — but most notably in the first quarter, Boston was looking to hit early pitch ahead (EPAs) to get the ball up the court as quickly as possible. The idea is that you make the ball the fastest player on your team.
Pitch-ahead passes are a simple way to trigger early offense while the defense is still getting back and looking to get into the scheme. Above is an example of how effective those EPAs can be when players leak out after defensive rebounds. We saw Boston go to these types of passes consistently throughout the night.
#9 Setting the tone
The Celtics jumped out to an early lead. A strong first quarter saw Boston set the tone. They executed their offense, played with pace, locked down on defense, and controlled their glass. The Celtics won the scoring, rebounding, steals, and blocks battle in that first quarter while being tied in assists.
Having such a strong start against one of the best teams in your conference is a great way to generate momentum and instill confidence in the rotation. You’re proving to yourself that they can be beaten, regardless of who is or isn’t in the lineup. Philadelphia struck back in the second quarter, but overall, Boston had set the tone for approaching the game and stuck to the blueprint.
Of course, White, Holiday, and Horford stepping into bigger roles and making an impact helped keep the overall game plan moving in the right direction.
#10 Crowding on defense
The Sixers like to jump passing lanes and hurt you in transition. In the half-court, they run actions to get their guys downhill or give Joel Embiid the ball in his favored spots. The Celtics struggled to find answers for that blueprint in their first meeting with the Sixers; however, on Wednesday, they came prepared.
Joe Mazzulla had his team pressure the ball around the rim while players guarded the passing lanes. You were either taking a highly contested shot or risked getting picked off on the pass.
In transition, this type of defense works really well. The half-court offense isn’t set up, so players aren’t guaranteed to be in their spots. It speeds up decision-making and is conducive to forcing errors. You flow into your usual defensive scheme in the half-court and send two when necessary.
Boston had a similar game plan with Embiid wherever they wanted to pressure his decision-making.
After the last game between these two teams, I wrote that Boston needed to figure out how to slow down the Sixers (and Tyrese Maxey), and this was a good answer to that question. There will undoubtedly be some evolution in how the Celtics execute this high-pressure defense, as it can sometimes be risky. Still, it did what it was supposed to, and the Celtics won. Happy days.
The Celtics are up against the Toronto Raptors on Friday. It will be their second in-season tournament game of the season. Hopefully, Brown and Porzingis will be back in the rotation. And hopefully, we will discuss the team’s fifth straight win.