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Kristaps Porzingis absence a new challenge for Celtics offense

Kristaps Porzingis’ shooting, screening and post-ups powered a hot offensive start for the Celtics that already slowed before his injury on Friday.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

BOSTON — Kristaps Porziņģis appeared briefly at Celtics practice on Monday sporting a black Boston sweatshirt and standing to the side away from the court. He felt better following a calf strain that knocked him out of the team’s loss to the Magic on Friday and began his first extended absence since Boston’s season began. He extended a run of 24-of-27 games played to close last season in Washington into 15-of-16 to begin this year. Overall, he appeared in 95-of-125 games since his last major injury.

“This lineup for the most part has done that all of last year,” Joe Mazzulla said at practice after Boston beat Atlanta without Porziņģis. “Just continuing to stress our spacing, and like we talked about last night, our attacks early in the shot clock were really good, which got us into some transition opportunities, whether it’s threes or layups, and we can just play faster to generate those advantages, generate those opportunities early in the shot clock. I think that’ll help us.”

The numbers indicate Porziņģis’ absence, which will last at least one week per Mazzulla, shouldn’t capsize the Celtics’ two-way attack. Of course, it will challenge their offense. Boston scored 114.2 points per 100 possessions with Porziņģis off the floor through 17 games, two points per 100 fewer than when he was on. The Celtics matched their overall defensive productivity (107.5 def. rating) with him off the court. Al Horford started in his place and managed six points, 15 rebounds and three assists with a steal and two blocks starting on Wednesday.

Mazzulla recalled discussing with Jaylen Brown how lucky the Celtics were to have Horford during Sunday’s win. Offensively limited at 37, Horford aggressively tracked down rebounds, made outlet passes and swung the ball through the paint to the perimeter despite missing all five threes on Friday. He also managed to score posting-up in line with an offense scoring more effectively inside and slowing in recent weeks even before Porziņģis went down. His absence will further test the team’s offensive versatility.

“Our assist rate is down this year? That’s news to me,” Brown said on Sunday. “It seems like the ball is definitely moving around, we’re getting guys involved, finding the right reads and matchups. I don’t know what the analytics say. Maybe some of the games we haven’t done that balance it out, but for the most part, I thought we’ve played some good, unselfish team basketball ... I like the way our teams feels right now ... 15-16 games in, we’ve still been figuring it out, but we’re winning and figuring it out ... this team is not a finished product.”

Boston, winning defensively against Atlanta, fell to 26th in offensive rating across each NBA team’s last six games (109.2). They’ve relied heavily on isolation (9.7 poss. per game, fourth), scoring 0.96 points per possession with that figure falling over that recent stretch, shooting 41.7% on those plays. The post-ups remain devastating, leading all teams with 1.23 PPP, but Jayson Tatum and Porziņģis combined for 5.2 of their 7.9 post-ups per game, Porziņģis generating 1.56 PPP.

Alongside their always-crucial three point shooting, which fell to 35.6% on Sunday (18th), the Celtics deployed transition play and an aggressive offensive rebounding attack to score their points. That’s led to their passing and assist rate dropping to 27th and 26th, respectively, with 24 assists on Sunday falling in line with their nightly production (26th). That win saw them break into some of their layered, pass-pass possessions that led to threes for Sam Hauser.

“I think we have to play faster. I know that for a fact,” Mazzulla said. “We’re not getting to our spacing as fast as we want to see the advantage or the mismatch that we have, so when we do get to our spacing, the reads are a lot easier. That’s a huge key for today, whether it’s a make or a miss, can we sprint to our spacing? Get those early offensive attacks ... our points per possession hasn’t dipped too much. I thought we played really well offensively in the Milwaukee game, I think it was more last game (in Orlando), we just didn’t play with great pace.”

Boston’s pace, in terms of possessions, actually slowed without Porziņģis despite playing smaller due and the Celtics’ ability to dominate the boards in the first game without him bodes well for bridging that gap. It’s become a major emphasis again for Mazzulla this year, and while he showed trust in Luke Kornet and Neemias Queta as depth options, Sunday’s win didn’t present the situation where the Celtics could miss Porziņģis for a lengthy amount of time.

The Celtics started the season 6-3 in games with clutch time, scoring 116.2 points per 100 in those situations with the league’s third-best assist rate. Porziņģis’ involvement in the screening game, gravity at the three-point line and dominance beating smaller defenders inside made him the crunch time read more often than not.

Only Derrick White shot better among Boston’s starters in late-and-close situations, hitting 55.6% from the field on 1.3 attempts per game, drawing 1.1 free throw attempts and converting them all. He didn’t commit a turnover. Now — he won’t be on the court for Brown and Tatum to target.

“We’re just playing,” Porziņģis said earlier this month. “The few good plays that you guys saw were super random. We’re running something and we just boom, back door there. We just play off each other without any, ok, we’re gonna run this set play here. A lot of times we’re just free-styling out there and it looks good ... I feel like we’re far from being a finished product.”

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