1. The Boston Celtics east-to-west, six-game road trip was a success. We said 4-2 would be a good trip, and the Celtics head back to Boston at 4-2 on the trip. Yes, there were a couple of messy losses in there in Houston (more so) and Utah (less so), but 4-2 is 4-2. That’s a record you’ll always take on a late-season trip.
Just as importantly, the Celtics looked like the Celtics we know and love in blowing out the Sacramento Kings to end the trip. They were engaged defensively (after the first quarter at least!), and the offense was crisp. The team also showed a sense of togetherness and having fun that’s been missing.
Maybe it was Rob Williams being back and the team being mostly whole. Maybe it was being fresh after a couple of days without games and a practice day to refocus. Maybe it was everyone in green collectively having had enough of being questioned. Whatever it was, it worked. And that led to Boston’s best win in a long time.
2. One of the best parts of this game was the Celtics stayed committed to playing the right way the whole way through. There was no letup. Even when the Kings made a mini run, they were never really back in the game. This stood out most with Boston’s offensive approach of ball and player movement and multiple paint attacks.
Just over a minute into the game, you could see it. Drive, kick, swing, splash:
Jayson Tatum catches the second defender in no-man’s land here and that got Marcus Smart an open look:
This is the growth of Jaylen Brown. He’s trying to draw the defense here. He succeeds before dumping it off to Rob Williams for the dunk:
Drive, kick, extra pass (also, look at Tatum point at Smart for making the hockey assist and at Brown for hitting the shot at the end of the play):
Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. Draw two and find the shooter, and there’s no better shooter to find than Al Horford in the right corner:
If the first foray into the lane doesn’t work, repeat and force the defense to make another rotation:
This is straight sorcery from Marcus Smart:
Remember how we said the Celtics played the right way for the whole game? This was late in the fourth quarter. No settling here. Just playing beautiful basketball the right way:
3. On the game’s first play, Jayson Tatum went to the post and drew a foul. He missed both free throws (it was a weird free throw night for Tatum, with five misses), but this was a process and a look thing. That one play immediately signaled, “Here we go!” and that proved prophetic.
This is from the mid-post. No dribble, no hesitation. Just bigger and better this his defender:
This is a little messy, but, again, the process is good. Tatum doesn’t quit on the play after making the pass. He relocates to the corner and buries the triple:
Much like the start of the game, the second half started with Tatum in the post again. This time, the defender plays off a bit and Tatum shoots right over him:
Small, quick, tough guards have often been Tatum’s kryptonite. Not so much anymore. You want to get physical? Tatum will bang you backwards a bit and then shoot right over you:
4. Jaylen Brown got into his bag for some of his bucket in this one. If Brown gets to the free throw line for his pullup, it’s going in:
There’s nothing fancy here, but Brown leaks out and then finishes off the nice fastbreak here. Stealing easy points like this needs to happen more for Boston:
Brown has become a terrific late-clock option for Boston, because he gets his shot up so smoothly now. You can’t really defend this any better, but it doesn’t matter:
And when he can, Brown will overpower any equally-sized or smaller defender:
5. Derrick White is great. He plays with the best personal pace the Celtics have had since Gordon Hayward was on the team. Here, White uses Rob Williams’ vertical gravity to get to the rim, but he does it by keeping his dribble alive until the layup opens up:
Schooled in that Spurs pace-emphasized system, White is always heads-up in transition:
There isn’t another guard in the NBA that does this. Yes, he’s cleaning up his own mess, but White stops a 2-on-1 break twice on the same play:
6. Boston made a subtle, but important adjustment against Domantas Sabonis as the game went along. In the first half, the Celtics let Sabonis get his catches wherever he wanted them, and they were generally coming below the free throw line. Against Boston’s switches, that allowed Sabonis to go for 12 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the first half.
In the second half, Joe Mazzulla had his defenders lift the pickup points for Sabonis to above the free throw line, and often out by the arc. After halftime, Sabonis shot just 2-of-5 for four points, five rebounds and four assists.
This is a good example of the higher pickup point against a switch. Jayson Tatum hands Sabonis off to Derrick White. Because White picks Sabonis up above the free throw line, the Kings star has to work harder and longer for position. That extra time allows Tatum to come with the double, which forces the steal and layup the other way:
7. Boston blitzed Sacramento in the third quarter. The game went from tightly contested to a blowout, and it was a steady flow of buckets from the Celtics that did it.
Holding a 68-61 lead with 9:31 to play, here’s what happened consecutively over the next three minutes:
· The above Tatum steal and layup
· Brown three
· Horford three
· Smart three
· Brown dunk
· Smart and-1 layup
· White three
It was a 19-12 sequence in the flash of an eye that pushed Boston’s lead to 14 points. The Celtics added 13 more points to put up a 40-point third quarter.
This was one of Boston’s more dominant stretches of offensive basketball in recent weeks. And it led directly to the Celtics blowing out the Kings.
8. Joe Mazzulla treated this one like a playoff game. During the competitive portion of the game, Mazzulla played only eight players. He went with a starting group of Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and Marcus Smart. The three guys who saw minutes off the bench were Rob Williams, Grant Williams and Malcolm Brogdon.
That’s Boston’s top-eight guys. With all the respect in the world for the other players who have contributed this season, those are the eight guys who will decide the Celtics season. It’s time to trust them to bring the important games home.
We’ll see if Rob Williams coming off the bench is a thing, or just a minutes and role thing as he makes his way back from the hamstring injury. But this rotation alignment offered Boston a nice balance that they’ve seemingly been missing at times this season.
Mazzulla also made adjustments throughout the game and going into the game. The first was a focus on getting Tatum touches in the post. The second was an increased emphasis on spacing and getting into the paint. The third was adjusting the defense against Domantas Sabonis.
With the benefit of a day to practice before the game, and a chance to gameplan, we may have gotten a glimpse at Mazzulla making plans before the game and in-game adjustments. That’s something that will be necessary in the playoffs, and it’s good to see it in action with only a couple off weeks to go in the regular season.
9. Sometimes a single play jumps out as the “Oh, they’re winning this game” play. Grant Williams delivered it early in the fourth quarter:
Grant is getting this ball, or no one is. Look at the end of the clip at how fired up the Boston bench is. These are the plays where you can tell guys are playing for something bigger and something more than just themselves.
10. It was a good trip. Now the Celtics are back to Boston. Six of the final nine games are at home for the Celtics. They are healthy again, with Payton Pritchard likely to return back in Boston to bring the team to full health.
It’s been bumpy and uneven, but everything is still there to play for with two-ish weeks to go in the regular season. Let’s see if a corner has been turned when the Celtics get back to work on Friday against the Indiana Pacers.