Two potential trap games, two blow-out victories. Anybody concerned about the high minutes’ load for the Boston Celtics starters in the opening two games can rest easy: they’ve sat the entire fourth quarter twice in a row. At times, the talent disparity looked borderline unfair. The Celtics attacked mismatches, created open shots, and locked down on defense.
As a young rebuilding team, the Indiana Pacers didn’t lay down. They kept fighting right to the end, and credit to them. It’s that type of backbone and grit that will test this team’s ability to hold onto leads throughout the season, especially after such a hot start.
#1 Jrue Holiday just keeps on impressing
We’re four games into the season. Yet, Jrue Holiday’s addition is already looking like a masterstroke. His ability to blow up plays on the defensive end, run the point, and knock down his shots with a calm consistency has helped elevate the backcourt production to a new level.
This defensive rotation early in the opening quarter is a good example of how Holiday’s defensive IQ is helping keep the Celtics locked in on that end of the floor. The Pacers go to a drag screen between Myles Turner and Bruce Brown. Kristaps Porzingis and Jaylen Brown both find themselves operating in rearview defense, but Holiday shades over to get in front of Brown and cut off the middle of the floor.
Offensively, Holiday flashed a full three-level repertoire. He had buckets from post-ups, from threes, and the nice floater shown above. He’s impacting both ends, and the fit next to Derrick White is already extremely encouraging.
#2 Jaylen Brown as a scorer
Jaylen Brown has been used as more of a scorer in the last few games. Yes, he’s still bringing the ball up and is trusted to initiate at times, but his overall touches have slightly dipped. It’s a small sample size, so certainly subject to change; however, last season, Brown averaged 64 touches per game.
In the four games so far, he’s averaging 51.3 touches per game, third on the team behind Jayson Tatum (73) and White (52) — Holiday is fourth with 48. With less of a creation burden on his shoulders, Brown has been unleashed as a scoring threat, and it’s paying dividends.
Buckets like these show Brown is full of confidence. His shot is falling consistently, and he’s getting to his spots. The team’s additional focus on posting up will also play into Brown’s skill set, as he’s emerged as a reliable shooter from the interior.
Brown bringing the ball up the court and flowing into a pull-up mid-range shot is another indication of a slight focus shift, and the confidence and freedom he has to operate as primary scoring outlet.
#3 Kristaps Porzignis’ passing
Porzingis isn’t the playmaker that Nikola Jokic is. That’s fine; nobody is asking him to be. But over his first few games with the team, I’ve been impressed with his ability to make reads at pace. An opening play against the Pacers saw Boston go to a delay set (more on this later) and have Brown curl over a fake dribble hand-off before receiving a pocket pass for a nice jam.
The pass itself isn’t anything spectacular. It’s a bounce pass. But, the speed at which Porzingis recognized the passing lane, got the ball out of his hands, and threaded the needle through two defenders stood out to me. I’m not about to scream how the Celtics need to play through a passing big man, yet knowing their star center can make quick reads to blow up a defense is another dimension they can lean on when operating in the halfcourt.
#4 Getting nerdy with it: Curls off corner pin-downs
We saw less of Boston’s empty-side actions against the Pacers. They’re keeping things fresh and unpredictable. Instead, the Celtics looked to create opportunities by asking whoever was in the corner to curl over a pin-down and either flow into the post, get into the paint, or catch the ball on the move around the mid-block.
The talent the Celtics have in their starting lineup ensures a ridiculous amount of scoring gravity. Above, Boston has Tatum set a corner pin-down for Derrick White. The defense likely thinks the ball is heading to the All-NBA forward in the corner. As such, no one tracks White’s curl.
Holiday shows some patience while White gets to his spot before hitting the open man around the nail. From there, it’s about getting to the rim and finding an angle to finish the shot, which White does.
Here’s another example of a corner pin-down curl, this time, ran in the fourth quarter with Dalano Banton the beneficiary.
There’s a slight difference in the above action. Rather than having a single pin-down, the Celtics set a stagger screen. That is two screens spaced apart. Both act as separate pindowns but work in unison to get Banton open with room to get downhill.
#5 Another quiet 30 for Jayson Tatum
Through four games, Tatum is averaging a smidge under 30 points per game, 29.8 to be exact. The best players find ways to put up points in a quiet manner. They drop 30 on you without ever taking over the game. Tatum has reached that level. He hasn’t had a game where he’s singlehandedly had to drag his team to victory. Yet, he's cooking teams with efficient scoring and an increased focus on getting to the rim. This is the step we’ve been waiting for.
In the past, possessions like this have ended in a side-step three. Instead, Tatum gets his man to bite on the dribble, attacks the lane, and finishes with the smooth reverse. The 90s hoophead in me loved it.
#6 The press keeps bringing success
The 2-2-1 press that Joe Mazzulla and his coaching staff have implemented this year has provided solid results. The Celtics take their opponents out of rhythm before suffocating them with intense pressure, both as they bring the ball up and when they flow into half-court offense.
Early in the first quarter, with the game still close, the Celtics gave the Pacers their first taste of their press defense. The pressure created some panic in Indiana, and a bad decision to pass the ball rather than attack the hoop led to a tightly contested three. The Celtics would go to this press multiple more times through the games, getting what they wanted out of it more often than not. Overall, it’s been a welcomed addition to the team’s defensive system to begin the season.
#7 Sticking with the defense for a moment
Another staple of the Celtics defense, thus far, has been the consistency in which they have forced late shot-clock attempts or held teams for a full 24 seconds to force a turnover. Players are flying out to shooters. They’re rotating with pace, and switches appear to be second nature.
When you’re held to multiple last-second attempts in a game, it gets disheartening. Everything you’re trying isn’t working, and you’re left with hail-mary attempts. Boston is sucking the soul out of teams with their defense.
There was nowhere for the Pacers to go on the above possession. Every cutter was picked up. Every screen was switched. And the ball couldn’t find an opening. This isn’t the only possession of this nature from the Celtics win over Indiana, but the effort on display made it my favorite.
#8 Stock Exchange
I love that nickname for Derrick White. Yet again, White put in a stellar performance. He hustled on defense, attacked the rim, hit transition and spot-up threes. He’s the connector that Brad Stevens spoke about when the Celtics acquired him. It’s just that he’s also a featured member of the offense too, and he’s thriving.
White’s hustle on this defensive possession deserves to be pointed out. He ends the play having guarded three possessions, and if you watch his movements after he peels off his primary assignment, you can see him reading the offense before shooting out to contest the weakside three. Defense is 80% effort, and White is bringing every night, and has been throughout his time in Boston so far.
Also, props to the veteran guard on his vastly improved three-point shooting in recent seasons. This bucket was clean.
#9 Getting nerdy with it part 2: Delay actions
Earlier in this article, I noted how the Celtics went to a delay set in one of their actions. “Delay” is just a quicker way of saying the big man has the ball at the top of the perimeter while the other four guards are spaced around the three-point line. The Celtics have utilized delay sets for years. Yet, we hadn’t seen them much in the opening three games.
Here’s an example of a delay set that builds on the curls out of corner pin-downs we looked at earlier. Horford has the rock at the top, and there are pin-downs set in both corners, allowing to players to curl, pop, or re-screen on either side of the court.
Hauser ends up being the player to receive the pass and gets all the way to the rim before his defender strips the ball. The ending of the possession wasn’t what Boston would have wanted, but it’s clear the action worked and could be incorporated into their playbook moving forward.
#10 Hauser and Pritchard bounce back
Against the Washington Wizards, Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard had howlers. Neither could find their range from deep, and their impact on the offensive end was negligible, leading to stagnant offensive possession during the final quarter. Against the Pacers, Hauser was on fire from deep, and Pritchard looked far more aggressive in pushing the pace and forcing rotations.
The Celtics bench unit is built around their three-point shooter. Hauser, Osahe Brissett, and Lamar Stevens can provide defense. Dalano Banton brings size (and I liked what I saw from him against Indiana.) Yet, the bench mob will go where Pritchard and Hauser take them, assuming there are no starters on the court. Seeing a bounce-back game with solid shot-making and offensive execution is encouraging. But the bench still needs to continue proving themselves and finding ways to generate easy looks without losing their composure on defense.
The Celtics have a couple of days off now. They’re not back in action until Saturday, Nov. 4 when they face the Brooklyn Nets. After two great games against teams that would be considered lesser opponents, Boston will want to keep their energy and cut-throat edge when they face Brooklyn, which could be another trap game. So far, the Celtics haven’t given us a reason to doubt them, so I will be heading into Saturday hoping for another stellar showing.