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In the zone: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Raptors

The Celtics fought through a tough game to secure their 31st win of the season.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

#1 2-1-2 zone changes the game

Midway through the third quarter, Joe Mazzulla threw a curveball. After playing man defense for the first half, utilizing their normal switching system the usually has a big man in drop, the Boston Celtics went to a zone. Specifically, they went to a 2-1-2 zone.

As we’ve seen in previous iterations of this defensive alignment, Jrue Holiday is used as a quarterback in the middle of the floor. His strength and speed allow him to close out on drives, remove space, and marshall the defense around him. Having Kristaps Porzingis and Luke Kornet on the backline gives the Celtics elite rim protection and length, while Tatum’s presence as part of the front two is a great way of adding point-of-attack defense on the perimeter.

I have three clips from this zone look. The above video is simple. Boston threw out a zone look, and Toronto shot a three. Maybe they thought it was a good look, or maybe they couldn’t see a way of breaking down a zone with a versatile defender like Holiday in the middle.

On the very next possession, we get some movement from the Raptors. Interestingly, Jayson Tatum appears to be the only one lost in the coverage, which is fine; we’ve rarely seen this system in play, and he will get better. Holiday’s defensive leadership ensures everything stays intact, while Pritchard’s rotation allows Tatum to switch to the weak side.

What I like most about this zone look is how easy it is to ice ball handlers toward the baseline and sideline. Note how when the ball is on the wing, the Celtics can have three defenders taking away the middle of the court. They can also shut off middle drives for off-ball players by pulling a defender slightly into the paint. It’s a tough one to crack.

Eventually, the Raptors do get into the paint with a secondary drive. However, Thaddeus Young is met by two seven-foot bigs, and the block quickly follows. Toronto gets a second attempt, which comes to nothing. Then, on the third attempt, Dennis Schroder loses the ball as he tries to navigate Boston’s size and on-ball pressure when driving toward the low block.

This time, the Raptors try to blow open the zone by getting Scottie Barnes the ball around the nail. Holiday quickly pressures Barnes off his spot, and the Celtics adjust their pickup points on the perimeter. Pascal Siakam’s cross cut is shut down by Al Horford and Kornet pinching in, leading the Raptors to go to a pick-and-roll to try and carve the zone open. It doesn’t work; the Celtics pressure the rock, close off angles, and, once again, the Raptors turn the ball over.

We’ve seen the Celtics struggle with inventive zone looks in previous seasons. We know how frustrating it can be. It’s fun being on the other side of that.

#2 Half-court defense was Boston’s best weapon

While the 2-1-2 zone helped swing the momentum of the game and put Boston in the driver's seat heading into the fourth quarter, it was their half-court defense that stole the show. At times, it felt like the Raptors struggled to find gaps to exploit or generate mismatches they felt comfortable attacking.

The above clip was one of the Celtics' first defensive possessions of the game. Note how connected everyone’s movements are. How Holiday once again makes a difference in the middle of the court. How Derrick White’s dig from behind helps slow down Jonatay Porter on the drive, allowing Porzingis to position his body and get the block. There was unity in how the Celtics defended, which helped set the tone for the rest of the game.

Here’s another example. Fresh off their stifling success of the 2-1-2 zone, Boston goes back to some man principles despite starting off in a zone alignment. It looks funky, but that’s why it works. Again, Boston finds a way of having multiple bodies in front of the ball without giving up open passing lanes or allowing unchecked cuts. The result is a tightly contested turnaround jumper from Barnes, with both Tatum and Horford contesting the shot.

The Celtics' solid defensive foundation has carried them at times this season. Boston's defense once again shone in the halfcourt against a young Raptors team that is adjusting to a new pace courtesy of RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley’s arrival.

#3 Defending transition was an issue

However, the stellar defensive performance wasn’t without its issues. Without Jaylen Brown in the rotation, Boston looked a step slower in transition, most notably when getting back and building out to the ball.

To put this into context, 14.3% of Boston’s points total came on the break. The Raptors more than doubled that output, getting 31.3% of their buckets in transition, equating to 30 points in total.

Part of the reason the Raptors found success is the bulldozer Barnes and the blur Barrett.

Sometimes, a team finds what works for them and their personnel. It doesn’t mean that the Celtics are a bad transition defense or that there is something to worry about moving forward. Barnes's skillset is built for this type of high-paced, open-court offense, as you can see in the above clip.

#4 The big third-quarter run

This was the turning point, right? A 20-4 run in the third to create some separation against a team that was hanging around despite Boston’s success from the perimeter. Yes, the 2-1-2 zone fuelled that run, and the Celtics created some momentum via their stops. Still, that type of run to close out a quarter is often the difference maker during a game, and it proved to be the platform Boston built from heading into the fourth quarter.

#5 Tatum turns the tide

Tatum was another beneficiary of an impressive third quarter. The All-NBA forward wasn’t at his best against the Raptors, as they continually pressured him on the catch and sent double teams at him around the slot and in the post. Yet, in the third quarter, Tatum found a way to produce 9 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and a block. Ok, he didn’t have the greatest of shooting nights, and 3-for-8 from deep isn’t the best of success.

However, Tatum found ways to make an impact, and he did it as the rest of the team was surging. That’s where Tatum’s impact can be underrated. He found ways to make his presence felt on both sides of the floor, led the team in scoring in the third, and consumed almost half of the total rebounds during the quarter.

This dunk felt like it took the wind out of the Raptors’ sails and invigorated Boston’s offense. What I liked most about the play was how easily Tatum created space for himself with his first step and how the Raptors’ defense struggled to rotate over quickly enough to contest his shot.

“January Jay” as the broadcast dubbed him, has been excellent over the first two weeks of 2024. Encouragingly, he didn’t let his shooting struggles define his performance in this game and found a way to produce a solid double-double.

#6 Jrue Holiday enjoys a two-way game

I’ve mentioned this before. When watching a game, my process is that I keep a notebook next to my keyboard; whenever I have an observation, I pause, jot it down, timestamp it, go back 20 seconds, and re-watch it to make sure I didn’t miss anything. The first few notes from Monday’s game were all about Holiday.

He started off with some aggressive offense as he looked to push the pace and fill the first-quarter scoring void created by Brown’s absence from the rotation. He shot 50% in the first, going 3-of-6 from the field for 10 points. He ended the game with 22 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal.

I’ve already pointed out some of Holiday’s defensive upside in today’s takeaways, so let’s look at some of the things he did on offense.

Here, we see Holiday snake his dribble off the pick-and-roll, get to his spot, and commit his man to contest a fake before splitting two defenders for the easy layup around the rim. We don’t always get to see Holiday’s upside as a scorer, but this bucket highlighted his poise in traffic and ability to get to his spots.

Best rebounding guard in the NBA. Change my mind.

And then we have this assist. What I liked about Holiday’s play here is how much patience he showed by waiting until the defense had committed before making his read. You can see that as he gets into the restricted area, Pascal Siakam rotates over to provide help. Holiday has also drawn two defenders on his drive.

A quick wrap-around pass to Oshae Brissett creates a high-quality shot for the Candian native, and boom, an easy three points on the board and a bucket for the high-energy “Brissy.”

Sacrifice has been a buzzword around this year's Celtics. The common consensus is that Holiday is the player sacrificing the most. When you see him seamlessly step into a bigger role like he did against Toronto, you can understand why he’s such an important piece to the Celtics puzzle — on both ends of the floor.

#7 Derrick White can be a scorer

White absorbed a lot of Brown’s shot attempts throughout the game. He took a total of 18 attempts — one less than Tatum — and four more than Holiday. His ability to knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers on the perimeter makes him the ideal drive and kick target, especially when he’s spotting up in the corners.

I’ve written a lot about White throughout the first half of the season and will probably have lots more words to write in the coming month. For now, the message remains the same: his ability to scale production and fill gaps has been one of the most important factors in Boston’s early season success. Long may it continue.

#8 Gettin’ nerdy with it: Creating mid-range looks via movement

Disclaimer: This play doesn’t result in a bucket.

The reason I liked this action is because it all took place on the interior with the aim of getting Tatum a good shot at the elbow. For a team that’s been accused of focusing too heavily on the three-point line, this was a good reminder that Boston has a well-balanced shot selection this season, and they’re prioritizing good shots for individual player profiles.

I’ve chunked this possession into three specific movements.

The cross screen: The possession begins with Tatum setting a cross screen for Horford to cut onto the strong block.

The gut screen: Porzingis sets the gut screen for Tatum around the nail.

The curl: Tatum curls around the gut screen to receive the ball for a catch-and-shoot opportunity on the strong side elbow.

Naming scheme: Cross Gut Curl

The curl over the gut screen gave Tatum enough space to get the rock, square his hips, and flow into his jump shot. The play didn’t result in any points being put on the board, but the fluidity of the play and the location of the screens were both interesting to me. So, I wanted to point it out.

#9 Why double-big options are good

The next two takeaways are more of an opinion rather than something I noticed.

As with most decisions — both in basketball and in life — there are pros and cons. The same thing can be said about running with a double-big lineup, especially in terms of the system Mazzulla and his coaches have been running this season.

The good side to a double-big lineup is that additional size and length are protecting the low helpline on the defensive end. In Boston’s case, there are also two big men spacing the floor and operating as offensive hubs via screening, hand-offs, post-ups, and rolls to the rim.

With two big men in the lineup, there is a lot of balance across the rotation. Things seem to flow well, and players' roles feel more defined.

#10 Why double-big options can hurt

The downside. The additional balance and role definition can hurt Boston’s unpredictability. When running with a single big in the lineup, there is always a minimum of four players on the court capable of operating as a primary ball handler, bringing the rock up, making snap decisions and acting on them with pace. Horford and Porzingis are both solid passers, but you’re not pushing the tempo with either of them outside of delay actions.

That same tempo slows down when getting back on defense, and perhaps that’s a reason why the Raptors found some success with their transition offense. There’s also less off-ball movement, as you’re losing a cutter by having two bigs around the perimeter.

Both options come with their drawbacks; I just find it interesting looking at the different products on offer depending on how the lineup shakes out, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

Looking ahead

The Celtics face the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday when Victor Wembanyama and co. head to the TD Garden. This will be the 42nd game of the season, the official halfway mark, meaning the Celtics have an opportunity to remain undefeated in front of their home crowd for an entire half of the season. I’m excited to see the game and how things shake out.

Catch everyone on Thursday!

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