1. A year ago, the Boston Celtics had a long win streak snapped by the Detroit Pistons right before the All-Star break. It ended up not really mattering, as Boston made a run to the Finals anyway. But a year later, you can see some subtle, yet important differences between last season’s Celtics and this iteration.
Coming off a loss, a banged-up Boston team could have punted this game. Instead, a bunch of guys got out there, took a few more bumps, but also took care of business. Now, the Celtics hit the break on a high note.
No matter what the Milwaukee Bucks do tonight, the Celtics have the best record in the NBA. And they got there by taking almost every game just that much more seriously than they did a year ago. It’s not always noticeable, but almost exactly one year later, you can see the difference.
2. Jayson Tatum missed the Milwaukee game due to illness and he got off to a bit of a weird start in this game. Tatum was still effective, as he was getting inside for baskets against Detroit’s defense with regularity, but he couldn’t hit a jumper.
Then the third quarter happened, and Tatum started Tatuming all over the Pistons.
Tatum shot 9-for-11 from the field in the period, including 6-for-6 from behind the arc. After hitting a couple of layups to get warm after halftime, Tatum went to a hard jab dribble to set up this step-back three:
A couple of trips later, Tatum ripped a three off a screen from Al Horford:
Derrick White stole this offensive rebound before setting Tatum up for the second-chance triple:
Look at how long Tatum’s jab step is here to get James Wiseman rocking backwards before he steps back into another three:
Next time down the floor, Tatum uses the dribble to rock into a pullup over Wiseman again:
Tatum’s final triple of the quarter came in a 2-for-1 situation. He comes off the screen and pulls up for what should have been a four-point play:
Here’s the other thing about all of those shots and points: Boston needed them. The Pistons were hanging around and making it a game. Tatum kept them at bay, before getting some help to close it out late.
3. Marcus Smart made a bit of a surprise return. Smart said that instead of coming back after another full week off, he wanted to go into the break with a little momentum.
Smart made up for lost time, by making a bunch of Smart plays. He got started early by picking Killian Hayes’ pocket before finding Jayson Tatum on the break:
After turning it over, Smart didn’t sulk. He got back to break up the 2-on-1 fastbreak:
A little later, Smart came up with another steal and went the other way himself:
Late in the game, with the Pistons in last-gasp territory, Smart had one of those Cobra Strike plays where he snatches the ball and is gone the other way:
4. Beyond the steals, Smart had a great playmaking game too. This was an outstanding pass to Tatum for the and-1 dunk as Tatum slipped the screen:
Smart has gotten really good at holding his dribble for that extra beat to open up his bigs for good looks:
This is a good read by Smart to hit Luke Kornet, and a nice finish by Kornet to catch it and go up all in one motion:
This is another nice setup for Tatum to get downhill for the finish:
5. Derrick White and Jaylen Brown are neck-and-neck for Boston’s best transition players. Brown can be a blur of speed and power on the break, while White is ruthlessly efficient and patient in transition.
One dribble, head up, get the ball ahead:
White’s hard push in transition sets up Grant Williams for this three-pointer:
This isn’t any kind of fastbreak, but White doesn’t hesitate. He gets right into attack mode and sets up Luke Kornet with the alley-oop:
6. This is one of the deepest Celtics teams in years. They have two stars, four ballhandlers deserving of minutes, a cast of bigs that goes six deep, a designated shooter and a rehabbing scoring weapon.
Taking the injured Danilo Gallinari out of the mix, Boston has 13 players that Joe Mazzulla can put into any game and expect that good things will happen. Sure, one more wing for depth purposes (and keeping some minutes down) would be nice, but that feels almost like a luxury now. Brad Stevens has built a versatile roster that should give Mazzulla whatever he needs to match up with any opponent the rest of the way.
7. Malcolm Brogdon should be the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year. He’s been exactly what Boston wanted and needed off the bench. As Detroit sort of hung around, Brogdon helped close them out.
The veteran guard is really strong and good at using his shoulder to create space for his floaters and short paint shots:
Although he’s primarily played in a scoring role for the Celtics, Brogdon remains a point guard at heart. This is good patience to let Sam Hauser loop around the staggered screens for the layup:
Brogdon is also a high-IQ player. On this play, as Jayson Tatum draws two, Brogdon knows the ball is going to Blake Griffin as the outlet. He lifts from the corner to the wing to make the passing angle clearer for Griffin:
Again, Brogdon is a point guard at heart:
8. Grant Williams had an unfortunate turnover late in overtime in Milwaukee. He didn’t let that stick with him. Williams just got back to making good things happen.
First, it’s fun to see Sam Hauser rip and run off the rebound. But then Williams makes the nice pass to Malcolm Brogdon before getting a bit closer to let the three fly:
Tatum draws two here and Williams steps confidently into another three:
9. Blake Griffin knows he doesn’t have much time left in the NBA. The last thing on a Hall of Fame resume is a title. Griffin’s all-out style with Boston shows how bad he wants it. And the Celtics fans have reacted to it with utter joy and appreciation.
But Griffin isn’t just hustle plays, even though there are plenty of those. He’s knocking down threes like this at an impressive clip:
And once and a while, Griffin goes to the old-school bully game inside:
10. It’s the All-Star break! Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and the Celtics coaching staff, led by newly promoted head coach Joe Mazzulla, are headed to Utah for All-Star festivities. Everyone else is headed on a much-needed vacation. A lot of different Celtics are dealing with some sort of ailment. A few days off their feet is good for the body, mind and soul.
When Boston comes back, they start the stretch run with three-game road trip. There’s also a six-game western swing that will take up most of the middle of March. And there are a lot of playoff teams looming over the final 23 games.
The good news is that Celtics start that final push with the NBA’s best record. And they’re mostly healthy (minus some minor injuries), with plenty of depth. There’s a lot to come to be excited about. We’ll be back here to cover all of it, starting with next Thursday at the Indiana Pacers. Enjoy the break everyone!