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The halfway point: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Spurs

The Boston Celtics hit the halfway point of their second with a blowout win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Boston Celtics vs San Antonio Spurs Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

#1 20-0 at home

The Boston Celtics remain undefeated on their home court. 50% of the season is now in the books, and Joe Mazzulla’s team continues to take pride in racking up the wins and playing high-level defense, regardless of who their opponents are.

There’s a mental edge that comes with such a dominant home record. Teams will likely be aware of that when heading into the TD Garden. They will know the Celtics will up their game and that they’re fighting to keep that record alive for as long as possible. It’s a whole different type of hurdle that opponents have to overcome. Everyone wants to be the ones who snap the streak. That leads to teams pushing a little more, creating disjointed possession and allowing mistakes to bleed into their processes.

Maybe I’m looking too deep into this. Maybe I’m not. Either way, winning all of your home games is never a bad thing, and the longer it continues, the harder it will be for teams heading into Boston.

#2 Celtics utilizing size

Boston is teeming with size this season. With Kristaps Porzingis ruled out of the game due to injury, Mazzulla turned to a double-big lineup featuring Luke Kornet. Swapping one seven-footer out for another. Then, Neemias Queta slotted into Kornet’s usual role off the bench.

There aren’t many teams around the NBA that can call on three different seven-foot big men and trust they’re going to get production out of all of them. What’s even better is that each of the bigs brings something different to the table. Porzingis is finesse. Yes, he thrives in the post, but he also has a huge imprint on the game when operating on the perimeter or as a passer in delay actions.

Kornet is more technical. He relies on angles and creating space in his movement after screens. Queta is physical. His motor is seemingly endless, he’s strong and bulky, and his energy uplifts everyone around him.

When the Celtics top-8 rotation is available, it’s easy to forget the amount of size with talent that Boston has available to them.

#3 Luke Kornet produces

In a game that also featured Victor Wembanyama, Kornet ended up as the leader in blocked shots, registering three of them. He was active on the glass. Set solid screens. Created rotations when rolling to the rim. And played his role as the Celtic's drop defender very well.

Kornet isn’t the most explosive of players. Instead, he relies on understanding his positioning, using his height and length, and making smart decisions. As you can see in the above clip, Kornet is aware of the transition threat, so he quickly gets into the paint, allowing Boston to “build out to the ball.” As Jeremy Sochan drives, Kornet makes himself big, adjusts his stance, and goes up vertically to meet the shot at Sochan’s apex. Easy block.

If we’re talking about smart decisions, I’d be remiss not to mention the below pass out from Kornet in space.

The possession begins with Kornet setting a pin-down for Sam Hauser. As Hauser pops onto the perimeter, both San Antonio Spurs defenders look to trap, leaving Kornet open in space around the elbow. The ball quickly finds its way to the Celtics' big man, forcing Cedi Osman to peel off Oshae Brissett and step up on Kornet to kill a potential layup.

Rather than panicking, Kornet scans the floor and sees that Keldon Johnson has rotated onto Brissett and that Jaylen Brown is wide-open in the weak-side corner. A quick swing pass gets Brown the ball in space and leads to a three. That’s your third-string big man making a cross-court read in the flow of the offense, by the way.

#4 Holiday’s offensive production

For the second straight game, Jrue Holiday was able to assume a bigger role on the offensive end. The veteran guard has been a genuine offensive threat for most of his career, yet this season, with the Celtics, he has taken a step back to allow others around him to thrive. Yet, with both Derrick White and Porzingis out of the rotation, Holiday stepped in as Boston’s tertiary scoring option.

He shot 8-of-14 from the field with 6 makes on 7 attempts from the perimeter.

Holiday can give you plays like this, where he sneakily cuts along the baseline before popping up for an interior bucket. Or, he can give you moments like the one below, where he turns a messy possession into a scoring one by getting control of the rock and making the snap decision to let the shot fly.

Of course, he’s still going to give you the elite point-of-attack defense, the underrated rebounding, and some playmaking (either as a ball-handler or small screener.)

With so much talent on the roster, it’s sometimes easy to overlook how important Holiday’s contributions have been this season. When someone is missing from the starting five, he is usually the guy to step up and scale his performance levels.

Once the Celtics starting five is back on the floor, Holiday’s offensive production will likely decline as he re-assumes his usual role. Still, knowing he’s on the floor and can produce when required is an incredibly comforting factor for Mazzulla’s team.

#5 Attacking Wembanyama

Part of what makes Wembanyama such an exciting young player is his ability to move like a wing. His hip dexterity for his size is especially unique. Wembanyama can change directions at pace. He can deter and block shots from anywhere on the court. And, he can attack off the dribble in a similar manner to Kevin Durant.

So, how did the Celtics negate Wemby’s size and rim protection on Wednesday night? In the same way, they’ve been negating rim protection all season. They stuck to their five-out principles, drew the big man out of the paint, swung the rock and drove the gaps.

I liked the above play as a good example of ways the Celtics attacked Wemby. Here, Kornet cuts from the dunker spot to set a screen for Jayson Tatum. Wemby is forced to step up toward the perimeter to guard a potential roll from Kornet. As Tatum drives, the rookie big man is switched onto Tatum, allowing Kornet to gain a dominant position around the rim with a clear size advantage over his defender.

Tatum goes into his shooting motion, gets Wemby committed to defending the shot, and then quickly dumps it off to Kornet for the easy finish around the basket.

Finding ways to remove the shot-blocking threat from the paint is part of the “game within the game.” You see it unfold regardless of what teams you’re watching. The Celtics, however, have enough scoring and slashing talent to allow that battle to be slightly easier than what others teams around the league my experience.

Here’s another example, this time in transition. Three quick passes (Holiday to Horford, Horford to Tatum, Tatum to Brown) create the advantage and force Wemby to commit to defending Brown. That allows Kornet to roll toward the rim, once again commanding a dominant position before receiving the wrap-around pass from Brown. Bucket.

Again, beating the Spur's rim protection is about moving the rock and finding advantages; the Celtics managed to do that consistently throughout the night.

#6 JB’s solid play

We just saw a smart read from Brown in the last clip. However, he was also playing smart basketball throughout the contest. He ended the game with 21 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block.

These types of plays often go overlooked. It’s easy to see what unfolds and believe that Holiday was the only architect in this possession. Yet, when you peel a layer off, you notice how Brown times his movements and how he keeps himself open in space despite having two defenders near him. We often speak of how a big man’s primary job as a roll man is to time his movements; it’s the same for wings in transition.

Brown slowly inches toward the paint as Holiday engages the defense, allowing him to create a passing angle if Holiday needs a release valve — which, in this instance, he does. Also, note how Brown ensures his primary defender is sealed on his hips, allowing him to explode into the space behind the defense and get an easy finish. To me, that’s smart play. It’s the little details that often fall behind the bigger picture.

This play was just fun.

And this play was both fun and funny.

Brown has made some big strides in his overall play over the past 2 years. This season, it feels like everything has come together, and he’s more of a complete threat on both sides of the ball. Part of that is allowing himself to find success in the margins, which then accentuates the success overall. Another solid game.

#7 Tatum’s self-creation

Tatum has been a do-it-all threat this season. He’s operating as an off-ball scorer, primary ball-handler, pick-and-roll threat, and playmaker while also being a reliable defender, both at the point-of-attack and as a helper.

However, every now and then, he will do something that reminds you he’s also an elite self-creator. This play against Wembanyama was one of those reminders. He comes off a screen, hits Wemby with a hesitation dribble, gets him to plant his front foot and commit his hips, and then boom, the jets are on, and it’s an easy finish at the rim. I’m almost certain there was some eye manipulation here too, but we can never know that for certain based on the camera angles available.

Then we have this beauty. Tatum drags out the pick-and-roll, draws the double, hits a step back, and drains the three with two defenders in his face. January Jay is here, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s a sight to behold.

Just for reference, Tatum is shooting 50% on his pull-up threes in the month of January, after shooting just 33.1% in the opening months of the season. Obviously, it’s a much smaller sample size, but it’s an interesting development nevertheless.

#8 Queta made an impact

“I just liked seeing Neemy being physical and the presence that he played with on both ends of the floor,” Mazzulla said during his postgame interview. “He’s one of those kids that doesn’t know how good he can be. He hasn’t been in the league for a long time. I think he’s only played 300 minutes in the NBA. He’s starting to see when he plays with a certain presence; we’re a different basketball team.”

Queta stepped into the rotation following Kornet’s elevation into the starting lineup. During his minutes on the floor, he provided physicality, energy, and a legitimate presence around the rim on both sides of the floor. We’ve become accustomed to what Neemy can do on the basketball court. He’s still developing. Yet, his endless motor and legitimate size make him a threat to turn the tide of the game.

Of course, that bully ball bucket over Wembanyama was his highlight of the game, but it also showed the force that Neemy goes to the basket with, which isn’t always accurately displayed via a television screen.

Queta also secured 8 rebounds in his 12 minutes of playing time, four on each side of the court, which further illustrates the impact he can have around the rim.

#9 Jordan Walsh Minutes

He finally made his Celtics debut! We got to see about 3 minutes of Walsh against the Spurs. The first thing that stood out to me was that I had forgotten how amazing his wingspan was and the distance he could cover when stretching his arms. Other than that, Walsh did the best he could with his limited time and involvement in the game.

He stuck with his man; he dug at drives, tried to contest shots, and got open for a three, which ultimately didn’t fall. He’s still a raw prospect, but he has the physical intangibles and commitment to defense that you can envision him continuing to improve and hopefully getting more opportunities as the season(s) progress(es).

#10 Hauser as a cutter

Celtics go to a 21 reset action, Tatum sets a slice screen for Hauser, and the third-year sharpshooter cuts into the paint before receiving the pass and getting an easy bunny at the rim.

Hauser loops through the defense and off an exit down-screen from Kornet. Relocates to the corner and gets a shot off on the move.

Both of these plays have one thing in common: Hauser’s off-ball movement and cutting helped create the play. I’ve mentioned it before in these takeaways, but we’re seeing Hauser add more to his game — on both sides of the floor. The off-ball movement is a significant addition for Hauser due to his high-level movement shooting ability and how it can open up additional opportunities, both for him and for others.

I liked both of the above possessions and wanted to share them.

Looking Ahead

The Celtics have the Denver Nuggets next in what will undoubtedly be a tough test and a potential NBA Finals preview. Denver is the reigning champions. They have arguably the best player in the world on their roster. And the game is at home, putting that 20-0 record on the line. I’m excited for this one. There’s a mental advantage on offer.

Catch y’all on Saturday after the game!

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