1. The Boston Celtics have kicked off a weird six-game east-to-west road trip. Boston needs to keep stacking wins, should they hope to run down the Milwaukee Bucks for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics got things off to good start with a win at the Atlanta Hawks.
Was it a perfect performance? Not really. But it was good enough. When facing a decent team on the road, you take wins however you can get them.
Boston’s offense was very good all game. The defense locked in for the middle periods, as the Celtics took control of the game. Despite a bit of a shakiness in the middle of the fourth quarter, Boston showed growth by regrouping to finish strong.
Overall, it was a good start to the trip.
2. Boston is starting games with a smaller lineup while Rob Williams is out. That was a major advantage against Atlanta. When the Celtics had the ball, they were able to use the Hawks size against them.
Here, Jayson Tatum gets John Collins off his feet, while Al Horford sealed off the lane:
On this play, Derrick White drew Collins and didn’t hesitate. He got right into the paint for the teardrop:
The Celtics shouldn’t move away from the double-big lineups entirely. There are still teams where it makes sense to run two bigs out there. But having the versatility to go small, and still get things done, is a good look for Boston.
3. Boston’s ball movement was really strong in this game. It usually is. What was also strong was the player movement. This wasn’t just pinging the ball back and forth around the perimeter. That looks like good ball movement but is really just stationary passing.
The Celtics were moving themselves throughout this game. Against a Hawks team that doesn’t make multiple efforts on defense, that led to a lot of good shots.
The spacing here is terrific. The action starts with Derrick White setting a screen for Jaylen Brown. When Brown hits the paint and draws the help, Al Horford is wide open:
Remember the Hawks don’t want to make multiple efforts? Boston uses that against them here, because Atlanta doesn’t switch the staggered screens on this ATO and Sam Hauser gets an open three:
It’s unclear what Jalen Johnson is really doing here. It looks like he’s top-locking Brown, or setting to get over the screen. Brown used that leverage against Johnson and back cut him for a layup:
This is great stuff out of a Horns set. Jayson Tatum drops it off to Horford, who zips it to the slipping White. White then kicks it to Marcus Smart, who passes up a good shot for a great one, because Tatum didn’t just stay stationary at the arc, but made the secondary cut:
When the ball hits the paint, good things happen. When the ball hit the paint twice on the same possession, great things happen:
4. Not only did the Celtics do a good job of moving the ball, they were on the attack for most of the game. It wasn’t all fastbreaks, but Boston was getting the ball up the floor for transition buckets against non-set defenses.
Clint Capela’s instinct is to get back to the rim. He drops off just enough here that Al Horford is open for the wing triple:
We see this one somewhat regularly. Honestly, we should probably see it even more often than we do. Jaylen Brown is really good at setting up his man by stepping toward the ball, and then cutting backdoor, and Marcus Smart is regularly on time with the transition pass:
A couple of plays later, Brown gets it on the up-quick and he’s in the lane in the blink of an eye. When the help comes, Malcolm Brogdon gets a wide-open corner three:
5. Partway through the fourth quarter, nursing a double-digit lead, the Celtics started to go into coast mode again. The Hawks made a little run, and it looked like “here we go again” time.
But this time Boston went back to running their offense after a minute or two. That kept them in front, despite Atlanta threatening.
Two issues remained though. Late-game rebounding. If you read this space regularly, you get it. So, we won’t harp on it. But the small lineups have to hit bodies and rebound as a team.
The second problem was some really sloppy defense. Boston was late on some closeouts and that led to good looks for Atlanta, or the Hawks drew fouls.
The latter can be cleaned up. The former is starting to seem more like a feature than a bug.
6. We touched on it above, but Boston closed fairly strong offensively. And they did it by playing through, as opposed to shutting down and just running close.
Right before this clip, Marcus Smart won the second chance by beating everyone to the rebound. Then, the ball hits the paint and Jaylen Brown kicked it back to Smart for an open look:
Loved this play, because Smart attacks the paint with 15 seconds on the shot-clock before kicking out to Al Horford in the corner:
Trae Young is a bad defender, who also makes bad decisions. Why does he stay with Derrick white off this screen and leave Jayson Tatum wide-open? Again, the action comes before we hit the middle of the shot-clock:
Boston does a good job of going early again here. And this time, the Hawks try to scramble Young out of trouble. The play still finds him, as White spins for the layup:
To cap it off, despite it not being a virtuoso defensive performance, Horford came up with a huge play to clinch the game for the Celtics:
7. Sam Hauser is back to being a major weapon for Boston off the bench. He’s starting to bend the defense to him, which will open stuff up for others. That’s happening, because Hauser isn’t just spotting up anymore. He’s really become good at setting up the defense to get himself open.
Normally, you slip a screen to get headed downhill. Hauser slips this screen and flares to the wing for the shot:
This one is simple, but Hauser moves into the open space here. He could have stayed on the wing, but he slides to the corner for the easy handoff from Blake Griffin to get the corner three:
8. Malcolm Brogdon had a rough game the last time out, but he was back on track on Saturday night. There’s no rush here, despite the shot-clock running out. Like Gandalf, Brogdon arrives precisely when he means to:
It seems like once per game, Brogdon almost surprises the defense with an explosive move to the rim. He’s also gotten really good at using the extra attention the Celtics stars attract to attack before the defense can react:
9. Marcus Smart’s fingerprints were all over this win for Boston. He did a lot of positive things. On the downside, Smart was a mess in the final few minutes. Well, final minute-and-a-half for him, at least.
Smart fumbled a pass out of bounds that would have put the Celtics back up 10. Whatever. One play isn’t a killer.
Then, with just under two minutes to play, Smart went for a kill shot and airmailed a corner three. By a wide margin too.
About 30 seconds later, Smart fouled Trae Young, before taking a shot to his nether regions. That resulted in Smart stepping to Young, the two getting tangled up and then falling to the floor.
Now, Smart probably shouldn’t have been ejected. He deserved a technical foul for sure, as Young didn’t kick him on purpose. But the two tripped and fell, more than it was any sort of takedown.
All that said…it probably wasn’t the worse thing Joe Mazzulla had to close with Malcolm Brogdon. This was shaping up to be one those messy closes from Smart. And that’s something Mazzulla is going to have to decide on. Are there games where it makes more sense to close with Brogdon or Derrick White (or both) over Smart (and a second big)?
10. Boston now heads to Houston to face the Rockets on Monday night. That’s a game Boston will be heavy favorites in. If they come with the proper focus and effort, it shouldn’t be close. The Celtics are a vastly better team than the Rockets.
Getting this win in Atlanta was a nice start to the trip. Opening it 2-0 would be excellent. And it should happen, too. We’ll see Monday night is the Celtics have learned some lessons about playing down to their opponents.