#1 This is the best Jaylen Brown we’ve seen
This isn’t a new revelation. Jaylen Brown has undoubtedly been playing some of the best basketball of his career this season. However, this latest stretch of games has been a stark reminder of his developmental leap this season.
Against the Dallas Mavericks, 20 of Brown’s 34 points came inside of the paint. Dropping his shoulder, Brown can muscle his way to whether he wants on the court. As we’ve seen, he can make decent rim reads to find a reliable passing angle, or he can explode out of contact for monstrous finishes at the rim.
Bully drives like the one above have become a genuine tool within Brown’s scoring repertoire. His athleticism allows him to reach his apex despite being closely contested, while his physical strength and ability to control his center of gravity make him tough to defend when he’s going up at the rim.
What’s been most encouraging, though, is how Brown continually allows his mid-range game to work as a counter.
When the defense adjusts their pick-up points and looks to limit his drives to the rim, Brown is consistently countering with mid-range jumpers — both while facing up and on the turnaround. It’s been a huge reason why the rest of his offensive game has opened up and why he’s thriving as a featured scorer within the offense.
Finally, we need to credit Brown for how well he handled his matchup with Luka Doncic. We all know that Doncic’s best basketball is played on the offensive end.
Nevertheless, Brown consistently won his matchup against the MVP candidate and ensured he exposed some of Doncic’s weaknesses on the defensive end. Doncic guarded Brown for 4:17, allowing the Celtics wing to go 5-of-9 from the field and dish out two assists. Oh, and who can forget this highlight moment?
#2 Tatum snaps out of two-game slump
The three-point shot still isn’t falling. Yet, Jayson Tatum snapped out of his slump to drop 39 on the Mavericks. He was relentless in getting downhill. He made some great reads out of blitzes. And he found ways to exploit gaps in the defense, regardless of whether it created scoring opportunities for him or for his teammates.
Before we look at some of his scoring, I wanted to point out this pass.
Tatum has been making these swing passes out of the strong side post all season. This one stood out to me, though. He’s funneled toward Dereck Livley II and then faces a double with the baseline acting as a third defender. Tatum manages to create some daylight on the dribble before making a bullet pass to Horford in the weakside corner. It's a big time pass, and it is another example of how his playmaking ability has gone to another level over the past 12 months.
Now, the scoring.
Like Brown, Tatum did a significant portion of his work inside the paint. 14 of his 39 came from within 12 feet of the bucket. Importantly, Tatum’s aggression when attacking the rim allowed him to get to the line, which gave him an additional 15 points on 15-of-19 shooting.
Let’s start with this play. How many times have we seen Tatum settle for a side-step three in scenarios like this? Two defenders waiting to contest him, limiting his options on the drive. Instead, Tatum creates space off the dribble, drops his shoulder and attacks the rim. He doesn’t get the friendly roll on the reverse, but it’s a great process and is a welcomed shift in mindset.
Similarly to Brown, Tatum was also flashing his upside as a mid-range jump shooter, once again as a counter to when the defense was taking away the drive.
Drop defense is the predominately defensive system in the NBA. Sure, teams have other systems in their toolbox, but having a big drop is commonplace for the most part. So, when your two best players can both create their own shot in the mid-range to counter the defense, it opens up additional scoring opportunities.
I’m ok with Tatum’s three-point struggles against Dallas. It forced him to lean into his finishing ability around the rim and gave us one of his better scoring performances in recent weeks.
#3 Grant Williams is struggling badly
He’s an ex-Celtic, so I feel like it’s ok to make a quick observation here. Grant Williams enjoyed a strong start to his career with the Mavericks. His shot was falling, the team’s defense improved with him in the rotation, and everything clicked. As the season has worn on, Williams has struggled to leave his mark on games and isn’t making the defensive impact he was acquired to provide.
Against the Celtics, Williams was primarily a spectator. He didn't provide much floor spacing in the corners. His defense wasn’t as stern as what you would expect. And, his best moment came when he wrapped up Brown on a drive — which was more a vibes thing than an actual performance thing.
Hopefully, Williams can figure things out and make his presence felt the next time he faces his former team. Right now, though, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s on the trade market at the end of the season. The fit and the role he’s being asked to play just don’t suit his skill set.
#4 The 2-1-2 zone is still a work in progress
As we did with the 2-2-1 press earlier in the season, we’re starting to see a consistent dosage of the “2-1-2 spy” zone from the Celtics. So far, the results have been extremely mixed. Yes, that zone system helped turn the game against the Toronto Raptors on Monday, Jan. 15. Yet, since then, it’s been a mixed bag.
The point of throwing this coverage into games at this point in the season is to work out the kinks. Having a zone defense that you can turn to for spot minutes during the postseason is something Boston has been missing in recent years. So, if some ugly possessions are the price to pay for figuring it out, so be it.
Just to note, I do like the 2-1-2 spy and the pressure it can apply to an offense. Figuring out how you want the “spy” in the middle of the zone to operate will be key to making the coverage work. As you can see in the above clip, the coverage was blown open when Lively II positioned himself on the dunker spot and created confusion on how he was supposed to be covered. It’s a learning process.
#5 Hasuer and Pritchard held their ground
There were points in the game when Doncic began to hunt Pritchard and Sam Hauser to exploit the mismatch. In total, Pritchard spent 1:15 guarding the Mavericks star player. Yet, that was enough time for Doncic to get off five shot attempts, missing all of them.
Prtichard’s low center of gravity and ability to get his hips into his man when guarding bigger and stronger opponents makes him a tough match-up to exploit. In the above clip, you can see Pritchard holding his ground as Doncic tries to muscle his way to his spot. Yes, Doncic gets some separation on the contact, but Pritchard didn’t back down and wasn’t exactly being thrown around.
Fine, I'll say it. I thought Pritchard did a pretty good job on Luka last night. Cs did a good job of hiding him, but when called on, he fought and stayed in front. pic.twitter.com/FkdXog2EZ6— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) January 23, 2024
Hauser spent under a minute being directly tasked with guarding Doncic, but somehow, he still managed to get three shot attempts off, making one.
Again, Doncic tries to outmuscle the Celtics forward, but once again, he struggles to create the separation he’s looking for.
And here is some solid defense from Hauser. Yes, Doncic gets the shot off, and it falls, but Hauser did everything right and made his man work hard for the bucket — which is all you can ask for.
#6 An off-night for D-White
When I say off-night, I’m talking in terms of box score production. Make no mistake, White’s presence was still an integral part of Boston’s win and their overall ability to consistently find ways of controlling the tempo.
However, we’ve also become accustomed to White making a significant impact in some of the more pronounced areas of the game. He went 2-for-12 from the field, 1-of-7 from deep, and only had 1 assist to his name.
When you’ve been as consistent and as professional as White has been, you can overlook the occasional quiet night. It happens to everyone in the league at points; his body of work speaks for itself. Still, that level of consistency makes quieter performances stand out a little more.
I don’t think there’s much reason to be worried here, though. White had a big game against the Houston Rockets on Sunday and has been one of the best performers all season. It is what it is.
#7 Rim protection is key
The Celtics had eight blocked shots against the Mavericks. Eight. That’s without Kristaps Porzingis in the rotation, meaning their primary shot deterrent wasn’t on the floor.
This was one of my favorite blocks in the game. We’ve already touched on how Brown cooked Doncic when matched up with him. Now, let’s talk about how he also put the clamps down when defending him. Yes, in the above clip, Brown gets the block. However, he spent 6:15 matched up with Doncic, which was almost 50% of his on-ball defensive time. During those minutes, Brown held him to 2-of-6 shooting, allowing just 5 points.
The play above was early in the game. It was a sign of things to come. And, it was how Brown let Doncic know what type of night he was going to be in for.
Of course, this was my personal favorite block of the game. Poor ol’ Grant, getting swatted away by Tatum on a shot that was never going to threaten to go in, followed by some good-natured trash talk as the halftime buzzer went.
This Celtics team has a defensive pride. They have an offensive pride. They have a level of aggression that makes them difficult to deal with, regardless of how much time is left on the clock.
#8 Horford was quietly effective
We’re used to seeing Al Horford step back into the starting lineup. The unofficial resting policy means we see the veteran big man cover for Porzingis on one night of a back-to-back. That’s totally fine; protect your star big man. Horford is more than capable of slotting into the rotation and letting the game come to him.
Horford’s never one to force things. He took 7 shots against the Mavericks, 6 of which came on the perimeter. He plays his role on offense, and takes high-quality looks. If something appears that allows him to drive, he will, but his mind is usually focused on making a read rather than finishing around the rim.
Nevertheless, if a scoring opportunity does arise, he’s going to take it every time.
Here, the Celtics went to a corner stagger pin-down for Sam Hauser. He rejects the screens and cuts baseline. Horford screens for Brown pop back out onto the perimeter, then drives the rock at the rim, creating separation in the process.
Horford’s willingness to take everything within the flow of the game and provide off-ball spacing when required is a huge part of Boston’s success this season. I love seeing him keep that mindset when stepping into the starting lineup.
#9 Active hands
The Celtics recorded 20 deflections against the Mavericks. As I’ve said before, I highly rate deflections as a metric because it shows how active a team was in the passing lanes and when looking to blow up hand-off or screening actions.
For reference, the Mavericks only had 12 during the game. I want to give Tatum some credit here, too...He’s been incredibly active in terms of playing the passing lanes over the past week or so and has been a catalyst for numerous fast-break opportunities.
Big fan of Boston pressuring space as well as pressuring the on-ball player.
#10 Limiting easy looks
The Dallas Mavericks took 97 shots against the Celtics. 50 of them were contested enough to show up in the hustle stats — which is annoying that they don’t quantify how tightly contested those shots were. Still, the shot contests were good enough to hold a team consisting of both Kyrie Irving and Doncic to 110 point.
The Celtics aren’t giving up too many easy shots.
Take this defensive recovery from Brown as an example. Maxi Kleber has managed to curl over the defense and get into the paint unchecked. Rather than giving up on the play, Brown hustles back and gets a rear-view block on the big man.
We saw a similar level of defensive commitment earlier in the game, too. Once again, it’s Brown making the save. Tatum, who is guard Kleber in the corner, has been engaged to step into the paint and defend the rim, the ball finds its way to the open man.
Again, rather than standing still and waiting for the shot, accepting the defensive rotations had broken down, Brown sprints to close out and gets enough momentum that he affects the shot release. Miss, and defensive rebound secured by Jrue Holiday.
This Celtics team isn’t going to let you cook. You’ve got to fight for every bucket. If you create space, they’re not just going to let you have it; a close-out is coming.
The Celtics have two days off now. They’re back in action on Thursday when they face the Miami Heat. I think I speak for all Celtics fans when I say this one is going to mean something. Usually, I'm pretty relaxed on a game-to-game basis, but I want a win here. Let’s hope I’m writing a happy takeaway’s on Friday morning.