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Entering a banner year: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Spurs

The Celtics took care of business on New Years Eve.

Boston Celtics v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

#1 Starting big

With Jrue Holiday sitting out due to an elbow sprain, the Boston Celtics ran with a double-big lineup. Jaylen Brown shifted to the 2, and Jayson Tatum slid down to the 3. Going against a San Antonio Spurs team that boasts Victor Wembanyama, throwing out some additional size in the starting unit made sense.

Both Horford and Porzingis are capable of guarding on the perimeter along with defending screening actions in multiple coverages, which is needed when trying to limit versatile big men like Wembanyama. The bigger question is, would Joe Mazzulla have still gone double-big if Holiday had been available?

#2 Wow, Wemby

We’ve all seen Wembanyama play at this point. Most of us have probably seen a couple of his games or at least some highlight reels. However, watching him do his thing against a team we watch multiple times per week helped put his uniqueness in perspective. There were stretches where it felt like the Celtics were searching for answers on how best to guard him.

I mean, how do you guard moments like this?

As he gets more accustomed to the NBA game, adds strength, and the game begins to slow down, there could be some serious battles between Wembanyama and the Celtics. You could see how Tatum and Brown elevated their games as the Spurs rookie began to make an impact. He brought out the best in them.

#3 Time for Tatum to start ramping up

It’s that time. For the majority of his career, Tatum has begun raising his game around January and February. It looks like Wembanyama may have sparked something in him, too. Tatum ended the game with 25 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks. More importantly, he dropped 5-of-10 from deep.

Tatum has been struggling with his perimeter jump shot over the past few weeks. However, those struggles were firmly put behind him on Sunday night. Still, there will be sterner tests ahead. There will also be a bigger need for his playmaking ability, too.

Nevertheless, this was a good performance from Tatum, especially when he was operating as an off-ball threat and firing away off the catch, attacking the post, or driving the lane to attack gaps. Still, I think my favorite possession was a wide pick-and-pop between Tatum and Payton Prtichard that ended with a no-dribble mid-range pull-up.

Oh, and here’s a great clip of Tatum being a screener and making an impact. Big fan of Tatum in these plays, and I like how much space he created by tying up the defender.

#4 Porzingis struggles

Tough night for Kristaps Porzingis. The box score will tell you he took seven threes. One of those was a full-court heavy at the end of the first half; we can exclude that one. So, he took six perimeter jumpers. One was an air ball; four hit the front rim, and one hit the back rim.

Usually, when a consistent shooter starts hitting the front rim, it’s a sign that they’re tired. They’re not getting the same lift on their shots, which means not enough power is coming from their legs. Then, they try to course correct with using more upper body strength, which leads to a back-rim miss.

We will never know if Porzingis had tired legs or a nagging tweak in his calves or quads. Or, we know, is that it wasn’t his night, and that’s ok. He still made an impact on the glass and secured two blocks when protecting the rim. Oh, and for the most part, he handled the task of guarding Wembanyama well.

Porzingis will have better shooting nights; that’s inevitable. However, we can’t ignore how his presence above the break on offense pulled Wembanyama out of the paint and allowed the Celtics to find lanes to the basket.

This little two-man action between Brown and Porzingis, where Brown curls into the paint before drawing a foul, is indicative of how the Unicorn’s presence ensured Wembanyama’s rim protection wasn’t a consistent factor on the night.

#5 Gettin nerdy with it: Horns actions for Derrick white

I like Horns' actions. They’re simple. They’re effective. And there’s a ton of variations you can run with them. Boston went to some horns sets midway through the first quarter, putting Porzingis and Luke Kornet as the screeners and giving Derrick White options on how to exploit the defense.

As we know, White likes to go right when using a screen. As such, the Celtics ran a couple of horns sets that ended in a White-Kornet pick and roll, leading to two buckets for the backup big man, and showing why White’s versatility is such a bonus for this Celtics team.

This first action saw Kornet get an uncontested roll to the rim. The help defense was a beat late, and no one was there to tag the roll. So, White managed to get the easy entry pass into the big man, and the finish around the rim quickly followed.

Same action, similar result. However, this time, the possession ends in a lob play for Kornet. Boston also ran this same action in the very next possession, but the Spurs had adjusted and blew up the lob pass. Never mind, they still got a quick four points out of it and had something they could go back to later in the game if they were in a pinch — spoiler, they didn’t need to.

#6 Locking it down before the half

In the final few minutes of the second quarter, the Celtics upped their defensive pressure. We’ve seen them do this on countless occasions. Stifle the offense. Send them into the locker room at half-time, feeling deflated and wondering where their points are going to come from. It’s a power move.

In the above clip, the Celtics remove the middle of the floor. Every time the Spurs look to penetrate and get into the paint, the Celtics sink in and pressure the ball-handler or the cutter. As such, the Spurs are forced to settle for a closely-contested elbow jumper late in the clock.

Here, the Celtics do a great job of defending the Spurs’ motion offense. They shut down a zipper cut, rotate out to shooters, sink to clog passing lanes and kill rotations, and force a late shot-clock attempt. The fact Boston can turn on this level of defense whenever they want is wild.

#7 Turning up the pressure

Ok, so you demoralized a team with stifling defense before half-time. So, what do you do when the third quarter begins? You dominate the offensive end to assert your overall dominance.

The Celtics dropped 40 points in the third quarter. Both Tatum and Brown were in double-digits. They also secured 16 rebounds, with six of them coming on the offensive boards. However, it was Brown’s performance that really stole the show...

#8 The unstoppable Jaylen Brown

16 of Brown’s 24 points came in the third. Yet, it wasn’t how many points he scored. Instead, it’s how he was scoring them. He had two made threes, two made mid-range jumpers, and five made buckets around the rim. We had fadeaways, layups, catch-and-shoot jumpers, and these two awesome dunks.

I’m running out of ways to say how good Brown is and how this is the best stretch of basketball we’ve ever seen from him. The scary thing? It feels like he still has another level he can go to on both sides of the floor. To make this big of a leap in his eighth season and still have room to grow is incredible. I love the versatility he brings on offense and the physicality he’s added to his interior game.

#9 That Queta block

What more can I say? Oh yeah, that block was splendid.

#10 Payton Pritchard, dime-dropper

Pritchard has been enjoying a solid stretch of basketball lately. He’s shooting 38.1% from deep on the season and could keep seeing that percentage rise in the coming months. However, what I liked most about his performance against the Spurs was his playmaking. He ended the game with a game-leading seven dimes to his name.

Quick decisions like the one in the clip above allowed Pritchard to get downhill at pace and make the right read. He’s also showing solid body control on his dribble; in the below clip, he puts his defender “in jail” which is a fancy way of saying he sealed them on the back of his hips to protect the dribble before finding Kornet for the lob play.

Pritchard’s slow start to the season is firmly behind him. He’s making an impression on both sides of the floor and is growing in impact — especially as a small screener and ball-handler.

A quick message

Happy New Year to everyone taking the time to read today’s takeaways. I hope you all had an enjoyable New Year's Eve and are looking forward to an exciting year — both in terms of basketball and whatever your individual goals are for 2024.

If you missed it yesterday, I began creating a glossary of terms used in the Takeaways, complete with a supporting video. I will continue to add to this wherever possible, so don’t be shy in requesting additions in the comments sections or by shooting me a DM on Twitter (well, X.)

The Celtics have a tough game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday. That’s going to be a fun one and another test for this ever-impressive team. So, I will catch you all again on Wednesday when we dive into what is hopefully another win.

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