The Brooklyn Nets were a new type of test for the Boston Celtics. They play fast, they shoot a ton of threes, and they muck things up on the defensive end. At times, the game would undoubtedly have been frustrating; that’s part of Brooklyn’s game plan.
Yet, the Celtics rose to the occasion. Rather than shrinking in the face of physicality, they stood tall, earning their fifth straight win and keeping their crown as the only undefeated team left in the league.
#1 Making History
Jayson Tatum became the youngest player in Celtics history to reach 10,000 points. It’s fitting that the final bucket came courtesy of a free throw, after some exceptional skill that earned him two points plus a trip to the charity stripe. Tatum has spent most of his career with fans calling for him to attack the rim more and earn foul calls.
Here is the clip for points 9,998 and 9,999, which also earned the foul call to complete his history-making performance.
#2 The Jruth
With Derrick White missing the contest against Brooklyn for personal reasons, Jrue Holiday took on a large role within the offense. The summer addition produced in a big way, ending the game one rebound short of a triple-double after flashing some elite three-level scoring and high-level playmaking.
I really liked this inverted rip screen into a short roll late in the fourth. Holiday’s movement and screening created room around the nail, where he received the ball, drew help defense and then found the open man. High IQ plays like this are what makes Holiday such a special offensive player.
We also had this corner pick-and-roll that allowed Holiday to produce a nice pass for Kristaps Porzingis, leading to a foul around the rim. Overall, this was an exceptional performance from the veteran ball-handler in a game where the defense was trying to speed up the Celtics' decision-making.
#3 Al Horford stepping up
Al Horford has comprised a bench role to begin the season. The veteran big man saw his role change following the addition of Porzingis during the offseason. Horford has been impactful coming off the bench and has allowed the Celtics to have a reliable center rotation.
Mazzulla’s decision to insert Horford into the starting five ensured we Brooklyn would face a tough double-big lineup, which allowed the Celtics to take advantage of the Nets' lack of size in the middle of the floor.
The fluidity of the offense took a slight step back, and at times, the double-big rotation felt like it was struggling to handle the Nets' perimeter game and pace of play. On the whole, though, having Horford ready to step into the starting lineup is a luxury most teams can’t boast.
We also got to see this awesome post-pass from Horford for a rolling Luke Kornet.
#4 Getting nerdy with it: Gut Exit 77
Earlier in the season, I noted how Boston utilized “gut exit” screens to create space for a shooter or slasher on the perimeter. The idea is that the gut screen either forces a switch, which creates a mismatch. Or, the defender is an extra few steps behind the possession.
Against the Nets, the Celtics took things one step further, throwing a double screen at the end of the gut exit — for some reason, a double screen is known as “77,” I have no idea why. It is what it is.
Here, Tatum receives the gut exit screen from Al Horford. He catches the ball on the slot. Holiday and Horford flow into a double screen, allowing the All-Star to get to his spot at the top of the perimeter and drain the jumper.
The Nets defense played this action tightly. If Tatum had chosen, he could also have rejected the double screen and drove the space created by the empty corner and the high defensive line.
#5 Jaylen Brown’s struggles don’t define his performance
Yes, Jaylen Brown shot 2-of-11 from deep. Yes, he ended the game shooting a sub-optimal 31.8% from the field. However, this wasn’t an awful game for the Georgia native. He pressured the rim, created rotations, defended well, and kept his turnovers down.
Sometimes, shots just don’t fall. However, every defense knows they have to react when Brown is driving the lane or is working around the mid-post, where he’s always a threat to drain some mid-range looks.
Drives like this, where Brown displays his athleticism and body control, are good reminders of what he can do when attacking the rim and getting downhill. He’s an elite threat on offense. It’s also worth remembering that even when your perimeter shots aren’t falling, you have to keep taking them, if for no other reason than to ensure the defense doesn’t sag off to take away the drive or rip-through.
#6 No easy buckets
At times, the Nets had Boston’s defense exactly where they wanted it: spaced out and struggling to kill the drive without leaving a shooter open. To begin the season, the Celtics have been an energetic defense that makes their mark with intense pressure and quick switches to remove any advantage. It’s hard to do that when you’re so spaced out. Credit to the Nets.
However, if you go back and look through the Nets made shots, most came with a hand in their face. There weren’t many “gimmies” where the Celtics defense had blown a coverage. Don’t get me wrong, there are some examples of that; they are few and far between. For clarity, here is a blow pick-and-roll coverage, where Porzingis bites on a fake and makes the wrong decision. Mazzulla called a timeout after this.
For the most part, though, the defense was robust. There were multiple instances of the Nets struggling to find an opening and resorting to late shot-clock attempts or being shut down from penetrating off the dribble.
The above defensive possession stood out to me. Brown stuck with his man on the drive, forcing the kick out. The Celtics then jump out to shooters, rotate well, cut off the middle of the court, and use their length to disrupt the offensive rhythm. Brooklyn still gets a shot off, but it’s contested, which is a win for a defense.
There was also this solid perimeter defensive possession later in the game. The Celtics ensured the gaps were plugged, making driving a difficult choice due to the length around the perimeter. Holiday flashed some good screen navigation, and the Nets struggled for ideas. I’ll settle for that.
#7 Hustlin’ and Bustlin’
When you’re facing a team that likes to play physical and muck things up, you’ve got to hold your own in the hustle department. Having active hands, contesting shots, and generally making life difficult for your opponent will pay dividends throughout the course of the game.
The Celtics didn’t dominate the hustle stats — that’s not their style. But they did win the battles in two of the most key areas: deflections (11) and contested shots (56.) For a team that’s so stacked in terms of talent and experience, their commitment to winning some of the grittier battles is what’s going to provide them a platform throughout the season.
#8 Luke Kornet
There’s been significant conversation among Celtics fans as to whether Luke Kornet is the right guy to play backup to Porzingis and Horford. It’s been a difficult start to the season for the veteran big man, which hasn’t helped his case. However, against a smaller Nets team, Kornet reminded everyone that he could still make an impact.
He ended the game with 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting and 7 rebounds. He was a willing screener, created problems when he operated as a roll man, and did a good job keeping his man in front of him when defending the pick-and-roll.
Kornet didn’t do anything fancy. He stuck to the basics, played his role, and made an impact. I also liked his commitment to sticking with the above play despite Holiday initially rejecting the screen. Kornet is a third-string center; if he can find some consistency, he will be fine in his current role. Whether the Celtics look to upgrade before the February trade deadline is another question.
#9 Getting nerdy with it: Corner pin-down into an elbow DHO
Against the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics went to corner pin-down actions with regularity. Yet, when playing the Nets, they reverted back to their empty-side actions for the most part. That’s why this action caught my eye. It started off with a corner pin-down for Porzingis. Initially, I thought they were getting creative and running an inverted “zoom/Chicago” action. I was wrong.
Porzingis got the ball and flowed into an elbow dribble hand-off with Holiday. Porzingis slips the defense and gets an easy over-the-top pass to finish around the rim. Lovely.
Here is the possession in question.
#10 Pritchard fails to build on Pacers game
After breaking out of his early-season slump, Payton Pritchard put up another goose-egg performance for the Celtics. Don’t get me wrong, he hustled on defense, made the right reads, and pushed the pace. However, he failed to convert his shots, didn’t look aggressive enough, and didn’t produce as a playmaker, either.
Pritchard went 0-for-4 from the field in 19 minutes of play and accumulated 2 assists. He needs to be more aggressive. He wanted this role and earned it with his performances throughout preseason. Fortunately, the NBA season is still young, and Pritchard could be working through an adaption process to his new role and the rotation players he spending time on the court with.
Still, he needs to figure it out. The Celtics want a championship this season. They need a backup guard they can trust to make an impact and lead the second unit. Pritchard has helped the team make the NBA Finals once before. We know he's capable. And, with so many games left, it’s fine to show patience. However, he needs to start playing the brand of basketball that makes him such a dangerous bench scorer because that’s when the court opens up for him, and the assists start flowing, too.
Also, bring back those offensive rebound crashes we saw from him last season. Those were awesome.
The Celtics are back in action on Monday, Nov. 6. A difficult game against the Minnesota Timberwolves awaits. It will be interesting to see how they deal with the Timberwolves front-court size and explosive backcourt scoring courtesy of Anthony Edwards.
The best part of a new season is seeing how the team deals with the different types of tests the NBA can throw at you. I’m excited to see how the game plays out!