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Grinding it out: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Sixers

Winning is more important than looking good.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Not every win is going to be pretty. Sometimes, you need to grind out a victory, especially when facing a team that’s playing with nothing to lose. The Philadelphia 76ers came into their game against the Boston Celtics without Joel Embiid or Tyrese Maxey. Nobody expected the Sixers to win. Yet, their energy, hustle, and fast pace ensured they gave the Celtics a run for their money.

Still, the Celtics found a way to grind out a win. There were some ugly stretches. Hot shooting was countered by poor transition defense. Bad shooting was protected by good moments on the defensive end. The Celtics might have lacked a balance in their performance, but they found ways to keep themselves afloat.

Let’s dive in.

#1 Tatum’s ejection

This was the second ejection of Jayson Tatum’s career. The play in question didn’t appear to be an egregious foul call, but you could see Tatum was growing frustrated with an unfriendly whistle throughout the game.

“I wasn’t that f****** mad,” Tatum said. “Don’t put that narrative out there. I didn't throw nothing. I said what I said. There was no magic words. I didn’t cuss. Maybe they didn’t want me to play tonight. They were eager to get me outta there. I walked back calmly. I Sat in my chair and got some ice. I didn’t throw anything. It was just a joke. I had to laugh it off.”

Tatum had been having a good game in terms of scoring efficiency. He shot 6-of-9 from the field and chipped in with seven rebounds. However, the Sixers were swarming him every time he got the rock — which led to seven turnovers, six of which were live-ball mistakes.

For some, Tatum’s ejection was the show of emotion they’ve been calling for. The usually calm and reserved star let his emotions boil over. However, losing your star player before the fourth quarter is a big blow. Hopefully, we don’t see another Tatum ejection for the rest of the season, at least.

#2 Sometimes it’s three-sy, and sometimes it not

The Celtics shot 8-of-11 from deep in the first quarter. And then the wheels fell off. Boston went 4-of-11 in the second, 1-of-6 in the third, and 3-of-5 in the fourth. Having a hot shooting start to the game is a great way to generate momentum and stretch the defense out.

Having options when those shots stop falling is where the Celtics have struggled in previous seasons. Not this year, though. Joe Mazzulla’s team is just as comfortable attacking the rim and carving open space in the mid-range, and it’s made them a tough out.

We’re starting to see more consistency with plays like this. Short-roll offense is a reliable weapon when your shot isn’t falling, provided you have the mid-range shooters to make it work. Or that you have smart decision-makers to kick the rock out as the defense closes in.

In the above play, Al Horford gets into his old-school bag. He sets the screen, short-rolls to the nail, receives the pocket pass, and hits the mid-range jumper. This bucket came after a couple of missed looks on the perimeter and served to calm the offense and open the door to more interior looks.

When you have so many elite perimeter shooters on your roster, it makes sense to look for the perimeter shot early and often. Knowing when to pivot away from those looks for a while is what makes this year's Celtics team that much stronger. They’re not shooting themselves out of contests in the second and third quarters. They’re adjusting.

#3 Horford’s a calming factor

Speaking of Horford...The veteran big man is growing in stature as the season progresses. Horford is impacting the game on both sides of the floor and was once again the calming presence as the Sixers looked to muck things up and get out in transition whenever possible.

Smart shot selection, reliable defense, and a willingness to slow down the offense when receiving the ball are just some of the reasons Horford’s overall impact continues to be a huge factor.

Horford ended the game with 7-of-9 shooting, earning himself 20 points and a 52.6 DFG% on 19 defended shots. However, this one bucket really stood out to me in terms of processing speed and spatial recognition.

There’s nothing fancy here. Horford drives a close-out after receiving the rock from a drive-and-kick from Payton Pritchard. However, it’s Horford’s ability to recognize how the defense is playing him that is so impressive. Paul Reed is closing out onto the perimeter. He’s given up the driving lane by angling his body and leading with his hip. When Horford drives, Reed has to plant his foot, flip his hips, and try to recover; that’s too many movements to stay in the play when Horford is already a couple of beats ahead of you.

The play results in the veteran rolling back the years, nailing, and finishing a dunk in space. It all began with assessing his defender, reading the space, and attacking at speed. That’s .5 basketball in a nutshell.

Sticking with quick decision-making in space, here is a nice feed from Horford, which once again came courtesy of some short-roll offense.

Horford sets a drag screen, rolls toward the nail, and redirects the rock out to Holiday in the corner. Again, nothing fancy here, just quick decisions generating easy buckets. Love it.

#4 Gettin nerdy with it: Spamming an action

Successful actions were hard to come by for the Celtics. Both teams were playing with pace and operated with high pick-up points on the defensive end. Half-court offense was generated by attacking close-outs or finding lanes as players relocated. However, late in the fourth quarter, with Boston searching for some offense to give them some breathing space, the Celtics stumbled onto an action that worked...And they ran with it, implementing slight variances over three straight possessions.

The action they ran was a “Ghost Flare.”

This is the first action. Brown sets a “ghost screen” for Derrick White — which is a back screen that doesn’t create contact, followed by popping onto the perimeter — and then comes off a flare screen from Luke Kornet. Brown comes off a re-screen from Kornet, gets to his spot in the mid-range, and nails the jumper.

On the next offensive possession, the Celtics go back to the same action. This time, Al Horford is on the court, so Brown adds some variance to the play.

Same again. Ghost screen from Brown for White. Flare screen from Horford for Brown. However, this time, Horford has begun rolling to the hoop. Brown makes the read, hits Horford on the short roll, and it flows into some interior work from the impressive veteran. Bucket. Second straight play with the same entry action. Second straight-scoring possession.

Third time down the floor, the Celtics go back to the action again. This time, the Sixers have it figured out. Patrick Beverley initiates contact on the ghost screen and fights over the flare screen. Brown curls to create separation, and Marcus Morris rotates over as a help defender to stop any drive or dunk. Brown finds Horford, who finds Holiday. The play ends up in a foul.

Still, three straight possessions ended in scoring opportunities and created some separation for the Celtics. When you find an action that works, you stick with it until the defense adjusts. I enjoyed seeing some variations added in to keep the Sixers guessing, too.

#5 2-2-1 press is a nice counter

With the Sixers pushing the pace and getting good results, the Celtics occasionally went to a 2-2-1 press to try and counter the Sixers and slow down the pace of the game. For the most part, the Celtics have been successful when flowing into this type of defensive coverage, and had some good moments against the Sixers.

This early defensive press possession is one that stood out to me.

#6 Queta is still very raw

Queta earned some playing time over Luke Kornet against the Sixers. The third-year big brings solid energy off the bench and can provide a presence on the glass. Beyond that, he’s still a raw talent who isn’t going to be the difference maker many hope he can be. At least, not this season.

His screens are still a step slow or too low on the defender. He often looks sped up on offense for no legitimate reason. Queta will be a solid impact player this season, but stepping into a third-string role with consistent minutes may be too soon.

I also wanted to point out the following possession.

Watch Sam Hauser and Queta here. White has called for a screen. It’s unclear whether Hauser is cutting to clear space for White or is looking to set the screen. Both Hauser and Queta kind of run into each other, killing the flow of the possession and giving the Sixers a chance to set their defense. The play ends in a turnover.

Perhaps this was a simple miscommunication. Perhaps Queta is still getting used to his new teammates. Nevertheless, little mistakes like this can hurt the flow and need to be limited as much as possible.

#7 Derrick White’s wide-ranging impact

It feels like every game, we have something to praise Derrick White for. His versatility and connectivity are the glue that keeps this Celtics roster ticking. Against the Sixers, he chipped in as a scorer, defender, and playmaker.

Generally, White doesn’t do anything that sticks out; he’s kind of like Horford in that regard. Yet, he consistently makes plays and comes up big on both ends of the court. Yet, moments like this are hard to ignore.

White’s presence is felt in every area of the game. He’s a key member of the rotation for a reason, and will continue to be a defining factor in the Celtics' overall success this season. He’s rapidly becoming a fan favorite for a reason.

#8 Gettin nerdy with it part 2: Second-side actions

Sometimes, initial offensive actions get shut down. The defense has done a good job, and you’re forced to adjust. When that happens, you can either reset and look to flow into another play or into some read-and-react principles. Or, you can run something on the weak side and flow into second side actions (every time the ball goes left to right or right to left, it is classed as a new side action, 1st side, 2nd side, 3rd side, etc.)

Here is a good example of flowing into second-side actions. Boston opens the possession with a “21 reset” but has failed to manipulate the defense or find any open space. So Horford quickly flows into a “zoom action” on the second side, creating a driving lane for White. Of course, Horford pops up again with the putback, but do we expect anything less at this point?

#9 Brown will get better

Brown didn’t have his best game against the Sixers, but he wasn’t as bad as the stat sheet would lead you to believe. The majority of his shots came within the flow of the offense. He picked when to drive. Got to his spots. He put in a solid performance on the defensive end — finishing the game with a 36.8 DFG% limiting the Sixers to 7-of-19 shooting from the field when he was guarding them.

The scary part is that Brown can still find another gear, and Boston’s offense will be in a totally different dimension when he does. This one isn’t a long takeaway, but I wanted to give Brown his flowers in a game where he made an impact outside of his scoring.

#10 Banton gets more minutes

Banton appears to have cracked the regular-season rotation over the past few games. His size, length, and changes of pace are allowing him to be an impact-maker off the bench.

I liked this play from Banton, where he absorbed the contact to get the finish. Credit to him for getting where he wanted to go, too. He could be a solid project player in the coming seasons and will benefit from the additional playing time he could get moving forward.

Looking ahead

The Celtics’ next game comes in the form of the in-season tournament knock-out stages. They will face the Indiana Pacers in what will be a fun but tough matchup. I’m a big fan of the in-season tournament, especially with how it can give this Celtics core a chance to develop winning habits in win-or-go-home situations.

Hopefully, Kristaps Porzingis will be back from injury, and the Celtics can book their spot in the semi-finals before going on to win the inaugural in-season tournament championship.

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