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Back to business: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Rockets

The Boston Celtics took care of business on Saturday night, and got straight back in the win column as a result.

Houston Rockets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

#1 No sentiment for Udoka’s return

Yes, there was some fanfare during the build-up to the game. Ime Udoka answered multiple questions on how his tenure with the Boston Celtics ended and what he thought of his first game back in the TD Garden.

Personally, I wasn’t a fan. I would have preferred the focus to be on the Celtics bouncing back from a scheduled loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. However, from the opening tip, the Celtics were about their business. There was no taking it lightly on their former head coach. No room for sentiment. It was a straight clinic.

That’s how it should be. And, for a Celtics team that has received plaudits all season long for the growth in their mentality, this was another hurdle they cleared with little fuss. The good signs keep piling up.

#2 Jaylen Brown’s mid-range game has unlocked everything

This is more of an over-arching takeaway. It stems beyond the win or his performance against the Houston Rockets. Yet, it also ties directly into what we saw from Brown on Saturday night.

Brown started showing signs of a mid-range game in the 2019-20 season. For the majority of his career, that shot has been part of his offensive diet. However, over the past 18 months, there has been some growth in how he consistently utilizes his ability to knock down shots in the middle of the court.

Before, getting into the mid-range was an option. It was something he frequently looked to do.

Now, it’s a counter. There’s a big difference.

At this stage of his career, Brown likely understands that defenses will often look to take away certain sections of the court, with their decision being dependent on the phase of play.

Now, if a defense cuts off his drive, Brown can counter with a step-back or a fadeaway in the mid-range. If they run him off the three-point line, he can navigate toward the nail or elbow and let it fly if they shut down passing lanes when he’s posting up a cool turnaround fadeaway.

Suddenly, as opposing teams begin to take away the mid-range shot, threes begin to open up, or driving lanes pop up out of nowhere.

Against Houston, Brown took 15 shots. 5 of them came in the mid-range. 4 came around the rim. And 6 were from three. That’s a healthy diet in terms of shot selection and one that directly fits his scoring profile and ever-improving skillset.

This play above is a good example of what I’m talking about. Brown beats his man off the dribble and gets him connected to his hip. We know he has the strength to power his way to the rim, and he boasts the explosivness to get the finish. However, as Dillon Brooks digs into his driving lane, Brown flows into a counter. He plants his foot, creates space, and rises for the mid-range jumper.

He wasn’t hunting that shot. He just knew it was there if he needed to react to the defense. That’s growth, and it’s fuelling his amazing season.

#3 Tatum was right to stand his ground

In seasons gone by, Jayson Tatum has been guilty of arguing with officials far too frequently. Saturday wasn’t one of those times. He took some tough fouls with no whistle. Eventually, you have to stand your ground and let the officials know that you’re unhappy.

We’re talking about an All-NBA player here. There’s supposed to be a protective whistle. I’m not saying he should get every call. I like parity in the league. I like the fairness of the competition. Yet, when you’ve attacked the rim three times and got fouled on each occasion, you have the right to air your frustrations.

“I didn’t appreciate or like the no-call on those last two drives,” Tatum told the media after the game. “You know, I’m a very self-aware person. I understand the time and the score. The game was pretty much over. You know, had to stand up for myself. Said my piece. Got ejected. That was it.”

It sounds like Tatum picked his spot to make his feelings clear, which you can’t argue with.

#4 We’re starting to see Tatum elevate his play

It’s not just in terms of his shot-making, either. Yes, Tatum’s pull-up jumper is starting to fall on the perimeter again. Yes, he’s pressuring the rim more. And, ok, the post-ups have begun to decline a tad. Yet, it’s also the reads he’s making, the speed at which he’s making them, and his overall flow.

Right now, everything appears to be clicking for Tatum, as it usually does around this time of year.

The scoring will always be impressive. The playmaking and processing speed growth will continue to draw eyes, too. However, it’s the smaller details that are elevating the impression Tatum leaves on a game.

In the above clip, Tatum sets what’s known as a “Gortat Seal” screen — popularized by Marcin Gortat. Essentially, Tatum is removing the nail helper who would usually dig at the drive, creating an open lane for Payton Pritchard. Luke Kornet’s relocation on this action also takes away a defender and opens up additional space for Pritchard to attack.

That’s an All-NBA talent, setting a seal for the seventh or eighth man on the bench. Tatum epitomizes the Celtic's team-first mentality when he’s taking such an understated role in offensive actions, yet even as a screener, he carries scoring gravity. It was an essential part of his game to develop, and he’s getting better and better at it.

#5 Trapping this team doesn’t work

The Rockets looked to pressure Tatum and Brown whenever they got the ball. Sending two at either wing, Houston looked to generate turnovers and easy pilfers by getting into the ball early and often. However, Boston’s spacing is too good. You can't help off of anyone on the perimeter. Houston learned this lesson the hard way.

In the above clip, the Rockets looked to pressure Brown with a trap. He waits for both defenders to load up on him and then finds Kristaps Porzingis one pass away. Porzingis swings the rock to Derrick White, and suddenly, the defense is completely out of the rotation with a 41% shooter wide open on the weakside wing. Bucket.

Finding ways to shut down Boston’s offense is a task most teams have failed this season. There are simply too many weapons on the floor. However, looking to consistently double isn’t going to be the answer.

#6 Gettin’ nerdy with it: Dive Stack

A dive action is where one player on the perimeter cuts toward the baseline while a big man on the baseline cuts toward the perimeter — this happens in tandem. Midway through the first quarter, the Celtics went to something out of their dive series. However, rather than a usual dive, they ran it out of the weak side corner.

The reason the Celtics added this variance was so that they could free up Sam Hauser to flow directly into a stack action, creating confusion in the defense and potentially generating some additional space on the shot

The possession didn’t result in a bucket. Houston did a great job of defending the stack and killing the advantage. However, the process of the action was good. There was movement, switches were forced, and there was fluidity in how the offense looked to control the tempo. When Houston defended well, the Celtics flowed into a pick-and-roll between Porzingis and White.

I will take a good offensive process all day long. More often than not, it will result in points being added to the scoreboard.

#7 Gettin’ nerdy with it: 21 reset wedge

Again, we’re looking at a designed play. “21” is a series of early offense actions that usually occur between the guard and the shooting guard, hence the name 21. However, under Joe Mazzulla, the Celtics have consistently used Tatum in these actions.

The key to a 21-action is the hand-off around the corner. Sometimes, this comes via a pitch ahead and sometimes via the dribble. A 21 reset is when the player who receives the hand-off quickly passes the ball to the big man on the perimeter to trigger a delay action.

Once Boston had run their 21 reset action, Jrue Holiday stepped into a wedge screen to get Tatum onto the weakside post. From there, Tatum spun his defender, missed his first shot and was fouled on his second, although no whistle was called.

Again, great offensive process.

Just as a side note, I purposely wanted to share some actions that didn’t result in a basket today. I think it’s disingenuous to only credit plays that work when sticking with the offensive game plan is more important. Both of these plays were well-designed but failed to work out. I’m fine with that. Can’t score every shot,

#8 Porzingis

Porzingis dominated the first quarter. He had 12 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 block in 12 minutes of play. Throughout the game, his presence as a three-point threat, hand-off hub, and screener gave the Celtics the spacing and gravity they needed to be a threat in the mid-range and around the rim.

On defense, Porzingis had a tough matchup against Alperen Sengun but consistently found ways to make his presence felt, oftentimes affecting shots around the rim. We also saw the veteran big man step into a playmaking role at times. Still, nothing hits harder than him finding Brown on a back-door cut to blow up the coverage.

The two-man game between these two continues to evolve and give the Celtics a genuine option in the half-court when a defense has set up in their system and is looking to make things tough.

The pick-and-pop threat is also another huge plus for Boston. Especially when Porzingis is sharing the court with Horford, and there are two bigs that can space the floor and create confusion when operating as the screener.

This was another game where Porzingis’ value to the Celtics was on full display. He’s elevated the overall system; they’re a different type of team when he’s on the court.

#9 Pritch’n in

Love it! Pritchard did Pritchard things. He’s been solid this season — except for a slow-ish start as he got into a rhythm. Against the Rockets, he had 19 points. And no, not all of them came in the garbage, I mean, development time. Pritchard has been increasingly reliable when driving the lane. He loves to “Nash” his dribble, pulling bigs away from their spot under the rim and finding cutters.

He’s also, as we’re all too aware, an exceptional three-point shooter. Yet, for me, it was the frequency with which he attacked the rim that was most impressive. Three of his seven made shots came around the restricted area, while one was just outside of the block.

The way Pritchard varies his dribble in this clip is excellent. He puts his man in jail around the nail. Nash’s his dribble under the rim, and then uses the rim to protect his shot as he hits the reverse. Movement like Pritchard’s is hard to guard. One minute he’s stationary, the next he’s moving, then he’s changing direction. There’s a lot to like with what he’s shown in recent games.

#10 This was a different test

The Rockets posed a bit of a different test for the Celtics. They’re clearly playing hard for Udoka and looked like a team that wanted to help their coach secure a win. Their defense is tough. They fly around everywhere, embrace the physicality, and don’t shy away from difficult matchups. We know the score; we watched a year of Udoka basketball.

Factor in the need to bounce back from the Milwaukee game, and the return of Udoka, and the Celtics had a difficult test on their hands. Yet, in true Mazzulla-ball fashion, Boston took care of business on both sides of the ball. When they’re locked in, the Celtics can run up the score quickly, and then, they can keep the distance — which is a welcomed growth point.

Both teams played well. There was a fun tempo to the game, and the Celtics played with great pace in terms of their decision-making and execution. Tough circumstances, but they dominated.

Looking ahead

Boston is back in action on Monday. They face the Toronto Raptors. It will be fun to see how Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barret have changed the way Toronto lines up and looks to execute on both sides of the floor. As always, there will be another 10 takeaways on Tuesday following the game. Until then, have a great rest of your weekend!

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