Payton Pritchard: Game-to-game consistency
As someone who has been on the lower end of evaluations of Payton Pritchard, I feel he’s had a solid enough season. After a tough couple weeks to start the year, he’s recording career-highs in scoring (7.9 PPG) and assists (3.0) while earning the most minutes (20.9 MPG) he’s seen in his young career. Pritchard plays hard, puts in effort and remains a shooter that defenses have to account for.
But while we’ve seen what Pritchard can be at his best, I don’t think we’ve seen that kind of impact night in and night out. He’s been rather streaky. On the season, he’s recorded 13 games with double-digit scoring totals, but he’s never accomplished that feat more than twice in a row. As the full-fledged third guard on this team, it can’t be chalked up to a lack of opportunity anymore. He’s getting the opportunities he’s asked for.
It feels as if, when Pritchard sets foot on the court, the Celtics can’t know exactly what they’re going to get. It’s as likely that he shoots 2-for-8 as it is 4-for-8, which is a bigger swing than it feels like for someone with this kind of usage. There’s always going to be variance with a player that primarily shoots threes, but even on a cumulative level, it feels like he’s leaving fruit on the tree there too. He’s shooting 36% from deep over the past two seasons, a far cry from the 40% marks of his first two. Every little bit matters for a team at this level.
For Pritchard, games like the Celtics’ December 20 win over Sacramento (20 points, 6-of-12 shooting) are always welcome, but will never be the norm. It’s unreasonable to hold him to that kind of standard. That said, I would like to see a little more of, say, November 22’s win over Milwaukee (10 points, 4-of-7 shooting) on his ledger, and that’s not too much to ask for a player in his position.
Al Horford: Defeat Father Time in single combat
The addition of Kristaps Porzingis offers the Celtics the rare luxury of not needing Al Horford. After years of relying on Horford to anchor their frontcourt and provide crucial contributions on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, for once, they have another established big man who can contribute at a star level. Porzingis has been a terrific pickup for this team thus far, and being able to scale down 37-year-old Horford’s role is not an insignificant reason why.
But while you may not need Horford, you certainly want him. He’s still a phenomenally effective defender who brings nearly two decades of NBA experience to the table, and he’s still capable of stepping up to carry the load on occasion, even if not every single game at this point. He’s shooting 40% from three for the second consecutive season, and when he rejoins the starting lineup to fill a hole, he’s averaging 9 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists per game. That’s remarkable production for a 37-year-old — not every aging star can be LeBron James.
Adding Porzingis, an All-Star talent in his prime, may have elevated Boston’s ceiling, but Horford — as always — raises their floor. This run is going to end for him someday, but the longer he can fend off that end, the better. He’s poised to be a valuable contributor this postseason. All we can ask is that he casts down Father Time one more time — at least.
Jrue Holiday: Claim more offensive responsibility (when called for)
Everyone in the core rotation of this Celtics team has accepted a reduction in usage this season. It’s the reality of playing on a team as loaded with top-level talent as this one is. There’s only one basketball to go around, and everyone needs to adjust to each other to compensate for that fact. It’s a dynamic that sank the Kyrie Irving/Gordon Hayward era of this team, and one that may allow this iteration to fly.
Among that context, nobody on this team has sacrificed more, on an individual level, than Jrue Holiday. That’s the reality of going from being the third option on a contender to the fourth-or-sometimes-fifth. After scoring 19.3 points per game on a 25% usage rate in his final year with the Bucks, those numbers have dropped to 13.9 and 17.2 this year (not factoring in the Spurs win). That is a sharp drop, and one that requires an admirable level of unselfishness.
In the Celtics’ last two games, we’ve gotten a glimpse at that New Orleans/Milwaukee version of Holiday. He scored 22 points in the road win over Toronto — his career-high with the team — and matched it in the home victory against San Antonio. It’s clear that the high-volume, top-scorer version of Holiday is still in there, and he’s been exceptionally graceful in accepting the reduced opportunity to show it. As the season wears on and the Celtics undoubtedly face more games without pieces of their rotation, he’ll certainly get more opportunities to step up. Games like this could wind up being incredibly valuable in helping the Celtics secure the top seed when season’s end comes around.
Derrick White: Defeat the Curse of JJ Redick
Derrick White has once again appeared on JJ Redick’s podcast, and once again appears to have fallen into a slump immediately afterwards. Last year, after a talk with Redick that included White learning the definition of Imposter Syndrome, he fell into a December slump that saw him record just 37% shooting from the field and 23% from behind the three-point arc. This time around, White struggled through a five-game stretch in which he recorded 30% and 26% marks in the same categories, before rebounding to make eight threes in two games against Houston and Toronto. JJ Redick is listening, indeed.
In all seriousness, though, it feels as if the air has gone out of White’s All-Star bid, a little bit. This is a bad time of year to fall into a slump if you want to be playing on All-Star Weekend. Though the whole of White’s work this season suggests that he is a deserving pick for the showcase, ultimately, the more important thing is that he corrects his recent slump as he did last season. If he does that, he’ll likely be making voters look foolish by the time the Celtics embark into the postseason.
Kristaps Porzingis: Correct the three-point shooting
A small issue that has not yet been much of an actual issue for this team: Kristaps Porzingis is flirting with a career-low in three-point shooting. The Latvian unicorn is connecting on just 32.7% of his attempts from deep this season, above his 2021-22 mark of 31% with the Mavericks and Wizards but solidly below his 35.7% career average.
This hasn’t effected his performance to this point, of course. The Celtics have shooting in spades on this roster, and Porzingis is absolutely shredding defenses inside the arc, shooting 53% from the midrange, 60% from inside 10 feet and 80% at the rim. This has been his best season by far from two-point range. There’s a place for that, no matter what. The already-three-point-heavy Celtics don’t want to skew his shot profile further to the perimeter and sacrifice one of their best threats in the paint. Porzingis doesn’t need to change where he takes his shots to help, though. His three-point volume is already where you want it — just about five attempts per game. Those shots just aren’t going in quite enough.
Unbelievable as it may sound, the Celtics’ offense has another gear it can unlock if their star center’s threes start to find the bottom of the net more frequently. When push comes to shove, this is an offense designed to play five-out. Once Porzingis starts to convert his deep attempts at a rate more befitting his skill as a shooter, this offense could stand to benefit greatly.
Jaylen Brown: Correct the free throw shooting
Similar to Porzingis, this is perhaps a bit nitpicky in the context of what has otherwise been a very productive season for Jaylen Brown. He’s adapted well to a modest reduction in scoring volume, while improving as a playmaker and performing more consistently on defense — the typical checklist for him, in other words, has already been addressed. Asking for anything on top of that is a bit greedy.
And yet! It would be nice to see some improvement at the free throw line. Brown is shooting 73.5% from the charity stripe this season, which would be his worst mark in a season since 2019-20, his first full season as a starter. Despite being a reliable shooter from three and the midrange, Brown has never thrived at the free throw line. He was a sub-60% shooter for his first three seasons, and has settled in around the mid-70s since. That can be better, especially in the context of a team that has had some costly moments of ineptitude from the free throw line in the past two seasons.
Brown is constantly pushing his boundaries as an NBA player, finding new and unprecedented avenues of improvement in almost every season he’s played. If there’s anybody in the league capable of taking a leap as a free throw shooter after eight years as a pro, it would be him.
Jayson Tatum: Dominate the playoffs
Last year, we set the bar at MVP for Jayson Tatum. It’s hard to go much higher than that. He may have ultimately fallen short of that goal, but a top-five finish on the ballot was a worthy breakthrough. The harder pill to swallow, I’m sure Tatum would agree, was certainly the Celtics’ ultimate demise to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. So this time around, we set our sights to the postseason.
Tatum’s ability to perform in the bright lights is undeniable. Anyone arguing otherwise is being disingenuous — you need only look at his Game 7 record 51 points against the Philadelphia 76ers to see that, saying nothing of his multitude of other playoff triumphs. There’s a reason why the Celtics have lived in the Eastern Conference Finals during this era of the franchise, and it starts with Tatum.
That said, it’s fair to suggest that his performance has fizzled at times. He wasn’t himself in the 2022 Finals against Golden State, struggling through a wrist injury that left him seemingly unable to finish at the rim, and he several oddly ineffective outings in last year’s postseason before a sprained ankle effectively ended Boston’s season in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami. We haven’t necessarily seen everything click for Tatum across a full postseason run, which, considering how good he’s been, is honestly a pretty encouraging thought.
Maintaining his body will play into this as well. The iron man mentality he plays with, his endless desire to be on the court at all costs, is admirable, but it may be working to his detriment at times. The Celtics need Tatum to be his best self this postseason, and that includes physically, as repulsive as the idea of resting to mend an injury might be to him. Playoff success is everything this year, and as always, that starts with Jayson Tatum.