In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics melted against the zone.
Every time the Miami Heat went to it, the Celtics fumbled.
Over and over again.
Following their playoff exit, President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens completely shook up the roster, adding two All-Stars in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, the latter of whom has opened up a whole new world of offensive possibilities for the Celtics.
“Him just being out there as a threat, teams have to respect it, with his three-point shooting ability, and then he’s 7-foot-3 at the rim,” Jaylen Brown said of Porzingis. “So, it just allows me, Jayson, [and] everybody else on our team to have freedom if we know we got somebody like that at the rim. So, he’s big for us. “
The Celtics returned to the Kaseya Center for the first time since May on Thursday night for their second game against the Heat this season.
An early lead in the first quarter had the Celtics rolling, but once Miami started to make a run in the second, Erik Spoelstra broke out their zone defense for small stints. But it didn’t last very long.
Boston has too many weapons.
With Porzingis as the X-factor, the Celtics spaced out the Heat to the point where zone defense was no longer an option. If they gave the big man even an inch of space, he drained a three in their face.
“I think he just makes us really hard to guard,” Jayson Tatum said of Porzingis. “Somebody his size, obviously [he] can shoot, take advantage of mismatches. You got to make a decision.
“Are you going to switch? And [if] you put a small on him, then we’ll throw it to him. Are you going to be in drop? [Then] he drags the big out, and we throw it to him, and he shoots a three. So, I think just having him out there just presents so many challenges for other teams.”
Porzingis provides the Celtics an extra valve to work with, shredding any hope of the Heat’s zone working for long stretches. With his 7-foot-3 frame roaming the paint and perimeter, they always have a bail-out option available.
Even when the Heat threw a slew of bodies at him on the catch, he was able to make the right read and feed Al Horford in the corner for a three.
Porzingis needed just nine shots to drop 19 points on the Heat, shooting 6-of-9 from the field and 3-of-4 from behind the three-point line. He spearheaded an absurd offensive performance from the Celtics, as they shot 51-of-80 (63.7%) as a team, including 22-of-40 (55.0%) from beyond the arc.
It marked their best shooting performance from the field this season and their second-best showing from distance, with the only better display being a 57.1% night from deep in their 51-point rout of the Tyrese Haliburton-less Indiana Pacers on November 1.
Tatum and Brown have been the Celtics’ primary scorers for years. That’s always been their role. And while they’ll still end the season as the top two bucket-getters on the team, that doesn’t have to be the case on a night-to-night basis anymore.
“I think now we’re starting [to] have a lot of moments of like, ‘Oh, this guy can make my life easier.’ On both ends of the floor, we’ve had that,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “So, like you said, tonight, the last five games, we’ve seen different coverages on Kristaps. Different matchups. And I think tonight, we noticed them quicker. And we built a level of trust amongst the guys.”
Adding Porzingis to the mix had spawned a new offensive identity for the Celtics. Early in the season, it was highlighted by the elite two-man game between him and Brown, but now, Boston is utilizing it even more.
Miami, a team that’s had Boston’s number more often than not in the past three seasons, was completely lost on Thursday night. And Porzingis was at the center of their confusion.
“They’ve guarded us similarly in the past [to] how they wanted to try to guard us tonight. But the difference is, Kristaps got off to a hot start,” Brown said. “So, kind of the way they guarded us before, Kristaps kind of opened things up a little bit with his shot-making ability, with some of their switches and stuff like that. And it just allowed everything else to just snowball.”
As teams look to contain Tatum and Brown with their best defenders and coverages, a third Celtic threat will be waiting in the wings. Or at the three-point line. Or in the paint. Or wherever his 7-foot-6 wingspan can catch the ball.