A win over the Toronto Raptors on Friday night gave the Boston Celtics their fifth straight win. It was also the team’s second straight in-season tournament W, putting them atop of East Group C. There are two more games to play at the group stage; if the Celtics remain top, they progress onto the next round.
However, the game wasn’t without controversy. Multiple players found the court to be slippery, leading to falls, slides, bumps, and bruises. Jaylen Brown looked like he hurt himself at one point, too. Nevertheless, the Celtics ground out another win in a physical game.
Beyond the court and the shooting struggles, this was a fast-paced game with a lots of read-and-react offense. Not many set plays were run, and I need a third watch to pick up on some of the cat-and-mouse games both teams played. So, I’ve tried to keep the takeaways fun with a hint of nerdiness in them
Let’s dive in.
#1 Overcoming struggles from deep
Jayson Tatum went 1-of-11 from deep. Kristaps Porzingis was 0-of-3. When two of a team’s best perimeter scorers are ice-cold, it can lead to some offensive struggles. In years past, those misses would have been contagious. Poor shooting would have gone viral throughout the rotation. Not this season, though.
Boston has too many scorers. They’re attacking every level of the court. In return, individual shooting struggles can’t derail their offense like they did last season. They also appeared to lean into paint touches to generate threes when the roster was on a cold streak, forcing defensive collapses before kicking it out for open looks.
Take the above play, for example. The Raptors surged in the third quarter. Boston’s shot wasn’t falling at the rate we would have hoped. So, Al Horford goes back to the fundamentals. He attacks a close-out off the dribble, gets into the paint, draws a defender, and finds an open Derrick White. The defense had to react. Horford can post you up, he can hit floaters, and he reads the floor as well as anyone.
Good process has become a hallmark of the Celtics offense to begin the season, regardless of whether shots are falling or not.
#2 Speaking of threes
Can we just take a moment to appreciate how much scoring talent the Celtics have? White, Jaylen Brown, Sam Hauser (who is shooting 45.2% from deep,) and Horford all hit three of their perimeter jumpers. Jrue Holiday had two.
That’s 33 points, despite two of your top-three players shooting under a combined 10% from three-point range. Luxury doesn’t begin to describe how well-constructed this season's roster is. Kudos to Brad Stevens. Seriously.
Celtics players currently shooting over 40% on catch-and-shoot threes— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) November 18, 2023
#3 Gettin’ nerdy with it: “Wheel”
Yes, “Gettin’ nerdy with it” is back. I like the whimsicality of the name. For our first nerdy segment, we’re looking at a play called “wheel.” Like most actions, there are a series of how it can be run, and coaches have three or four options they like to cycle through. In this instance, Joe Mazzulla drew it up to leverage the scoring gravity of Tatum to create a gap for Brown to attack off the drive.
The play is designed like this: The Celtics set a weakside stagger screen for Tatum, who curls over both screens and relocates to the strongside corner. While this is happening, Brown is cutting strongside to weakside across the baseline.
Brown then gets a pin-in screen from Holiday, locking down two defenders and creating some space. White has passed to Porzingis, who then hand-off to Brown and finishes the stagger screening action, creating more space between Brown and his defender. Porzingis rolls to the rim to engage Jakob Poeltel, who is in drop. Dennis Schroder is looking to get a high tag, too.
Brown dribbles, gets to his spot around the nail and hits the pull-up jumper.
Credit to the Raptors, they defended the action well. They didn’t switch on any of the screens. Instead, the collapsed to limit a drive and/or roll. Yet, the space created by Porzingis’ roll and the distance of the trailing defender who navigated two screens gave Brown room to get his shot off. Having Tatum in the corner also kept the Raptors defense stretched out.
#4 Kristaps Porzingis defense
Porzingis had another big night on the defensive end. His size and length around the rim forced multiple altered shots around the rim. He also ended the night with three blocked shots. My favorite was a block that flowed into an impacted shot on the Raptors' second attempt around the rim.
Earlier this week, I wrote about Porzignis' upside as a defensive event maker.
With Boston’s switch 1-through-4 system and Porzignis operating in drop defense, teams find easy shots hard to come by. There is also a heavy focus on limiting second-chance points — the Celtics rank third in the NBA for 2nd chance points allowed, primarily due to their ability to affect shots around the rim and in the mid-range.
Here’s an awesome block, too.
#5 Jaylen Brown’s lob to Porzingis
This takeaway is a short one. I love the connection Brown and Porzingis are building. It’s been a talking point to begin the season. It will continue to be a talking point, especially if it leads to fun possession like the one below.
Nothing crazy occurred in this play. Porzingis mirrored his roll to the rim well, he kept himself in front of the defense, and Brown made the right read. Sometimes, the simple stuff is the best stuff.
#6 Featuring Jaylen Brown
The Celtics ran multiple plays that featured Brown as the primary scorer. The “wheel” action above is a good example of this. So is the below Zoom action that got JB turning the corner and getting to his spot.
A quick pass out of the action to re-locate after the defense shut his drive down didn’t take Brown out of his rhythm. Over his first 11 games, Brown is shooting 41.3% on catch-and-shoot threes, so there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have been confident in taking the shot despite the defense killing the initial action.
Boston also seems content with Brown attacking out of the post, as this is something we’ve seen more frequently over the past week or so.
And, of course, the Celtics went to a high pick-and-roll to get their hot hand going downhill late in the game.
Like Tatum, Brown’s offensive shot selection has become more diverse over the season's first few weeks. Encouragingly, the team recognizes when he’s got it going and puts him in multiple positions to make the most of his scoring ability.
#7 Sam Hauser back cut
Here’s another fun play. Again, nothing special, but blink, and you may have missed it.
A Hauser dunk is rare. Getting it off a heady back cut that caught the Raptors' defense napping is the icing on the cake.
#8 Gettin’ nerdy with it part 2: Tatum slip screen
Using Tatum as the roll man in screening actions has slowly become a regularity within the Celtics offense. He’s a talented screener, has good positioning, and can draw a crowd when popping after contact. However, Tatum is also smart at timing his slips out of screening actions to create opportunities on the roll or in the short roll when he can lean on his passing skills.
In the above clip, Tatum sets a quick touch screen on Poeltl to create a switch for Porzingis that would give him a mismatch on Dennis Schroder. However, Tatum slips after making contact (the contact, however minimal, is key to forcing a switch) and finds himself in space.
Porzingis makes a heads-up read and gets the pass into the paint. Tatum gets the easy bucket. Quick offensive actions like this, which also play into Boston’s usual half-court offense, can be a nightmare for teams to defend. On one hand, they want to shut down Porzingis on the perimeter; conversely, you can’t leave an MVP candidate unchecked rolling to the rim.
Factor in the other talents around him, and it becomes a pick-your-poison possession.
#9 Another solid Al Horford game
Horford has struggled in a bench role to begin the season. He snapped out of those struggles against the Philadelphia 76ers, albeit in a starting role. However, it would appear that a big game was all it took to get the veteran center back on track. He provided a solid impact off the bench against the Raptors, both as the lone big and as part of a double-big rotation.
Horford went 3-of-4 from deep and played some high-level defense when called upon. What makes the Celtics defense so intriguing is that both Horford and Porzingis can switch out of a drop defense to guard or contest a shot on the perimeter. Their size and footspeed usually generate opportunities to impact shots when closing out, too.
#10 A tight rotation
Joe Mazzulla stuck with a tight eight-man rotation against the Raptors. Against the Sixers, he went nine deep. It’s too early to read into anything regarding minutes distribution and potential playoff roles, but it’s telling that Horford, Hauser, and Payton Pritchard were the three players to get the nod off the bench. Those are the same three many expect to be on the bench rotation once the postseason begins.
I will admit, when Boston was struggling in the third, I was surprised not to see a Svi Mykhailiuk appearance, just for some extra firepower off the bench. Nevertheless, the rotation got the job done, and the Celtics are one step closer to winning their in-season tournament group.
The Celtics face the Memphis Grizzlies (2-9) on Sunday. Marcus Smart isn’t likely to be part of the game as he deals with an ankle injury sustained against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night. Still, it’s always fun to see how the Celtics stack up against Western Conference competition, regardless of how their season has gone so far.
I’m hoping for a sixth straight win.