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The surge: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Pelicans

The Celtics came alive midway through the fourth quarter to bounce straight back into the win column.

New Orleans Pelicans v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

#1 Derrick White was the catalyst

It wasn’t until midway through the fourth quarter that the Boston Celtics took control of the game against the New Orleans Pelicans. Until then, Joe Mazzulla’s team had been hanging in there, chipping away but struggling to get on the front foot.

Things started to turn around when Sam Hauser hit a three with 7:50 left on the clock. Then, White scored five quick points — both off Jaylen Brown assists — at which point, he began to energize his teammates.

Here are the first two points.

Here are the next three.

Until the fourth, White had been subdued. Yet, with the Celtics needing a spark, he stepped up to the plate, as we’ve seen so often throughout the season. It wasn’t long until White dropped another quick five points, either.

He ended the fourth with 13 points, 1 assist, and 1 steal. Yet, it was what his performance did for his team that was most important. When he came alive, so did everyone around him. Brown began to pressure the rim. Tatum discovered some swagger. Horford locked in. And suddenly, everything began to click.

This was a great example of late-game execution by the Celtics. The fact White was the catalyst is just further proof of the mind-boggling talent within the team’s top-6/7/8 rotation.

#2 Jrue Holiday’s 3rd quarter performance deserves credit

White will deservedly get a significant amount of praise for his stretch performance. However, Jrue Holiday had a similarly impactful third quarter — it just didn’t produce the same result in terms of a surge from his teammates.

12 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and some solid defense. Holiday was arguably the Celtic's best player coming out of halftime and made his presence felt on both sides of the court. Holiday did what Holiday does: he hustled, he executed, and he made himself a frustration to his opponents.

This possession also stood out to me. Not because the Celtics got the stop. And not because it was a zone defense. Instead, it was because of how clearly you could see White directing traffic. He was telling people where to be. He was reading the action as it unfolded. He was leading.

Moments like the one in the clip above won’t win you a game. They might not even be a footnote after the 48 minutes are over. However, they indicate tendencies and intangible skills that are so often overlooked. For me, this was a possession that really shone a light on the little things Holiday brings to the team.

And then there are aspects like the clip above. Holiday digs at Zion Williamson to pressure his dribble hand. He leaks out on the break and gets the pass. Holiday could have finished that bucket while avoiding contact. Instead, he “veer steps” to get the bump, finishes the play and draws the foul. A savvy move we often see from savvy guards.

Having two guards who can both operate as catalysts at different points in a game while still providing elite perimeter defense is a luxury. Personally, I’m doing my best not to take it for granted. That’s easier said than done, though.

Oh, and here is a play I really liked from Holiday, as he used his gravity while cutting (UCLA Cut (ball side cut with ball-handler at the top of the perimeter)) to help drag the defense toward the nail, giving Horford additional room to get his shot off.

#3 Jaylen Brown’s muscle game

Yesterday, I expanded on my thoughts regarding Brown’s mid-range game and how that’s unlocked the rest of his offense.

Against the Pelicans, Brown opted to use more bully drives than he did mid-range attempts. Given the size of the Pelicans front court, leaning into his strength and explosiveness makes sense. He got a good return on that decision, too.

I define a bully drive as needing to consistently create contact en route to the rim by dropping your shoulder, backing the man down, or veer stepping into multiple defenders to generate space.

In the above clip, Brown bumps CJ McCollum on a couple of occasions as he muscles his way to the rack. The Celtics have spaced the floor well. There isn’t much help defense being sent at Brown, so it makes sense to lean into your physical advantage at the moment.

Here’s another example as Brown dislodges his defender with a tough bump that sends his man back-stepping and creates all the space needed to get his shot off.

We also saw the “muscle advantage” when Brown went to his mid-range game. On this possession, Brown gets a slight bump from Brandon Ingram, allowing him to find some space around the elbow and get the shot off. Brown’s strength allows him to remain unphased by Ingram’s shot contest, allowing him to draw the foul while still sinking the shot.

Again, the mid-range game has done wonders for Brown’s confidence this season.

Before I end this segment, I just want to note how Brown was elite across the board. He created for others, rebounded, defended, ran the floor, and finished his interior looks. A great way to bounce back from a tough outing against the LA Clippers.

#4 Jayson Tatum’s silky finishing

This season, we’ve spent most of our time crediting Jayson Tatum’s post-game. We’ve also discussed his ability to finish through contact, and the improvements he’s made in reading the floor and making the right reads out of double-teams. Yet, he’s also been showing another aspect of his game.

Tatum has improved his finishing around the rim when he’s not forced to fight his way to his spots.

Call me old school, but I love seeing a well-executed finger roll. I especially enjoy it when it’s Tatum, arm fully outstretched, body contorted to create the right angle while also moving at pace. Those shots are far more difficult than we give them credit for. Yes, they’re right at the rim; however, the body control and soft touch that’s required are both hard skills to master.

This time, Tatum Euro Steps through traffic, splitting three defenders in one move, and gets the easy finger roll finish at the rim. Silky smooth. Almost unguardable footwork. All-Star-level stuff right there.

Granted, that’s only two of Tatum’s 10 made buckets. The rest came via dunks, mid-range jumpers, step-backs, and threes. Personally, I like that 8 of his 10 makes came from two-point range, too. Tatum is starting to embrace being a three-level threat and, similar to Brown, is using the mid-range as a counter when required.

Still, I chose to show these two finishes as I think it’s an under-discussed aspect of Tatum’s game. In a contest where Tatum was dealing with the rim protection of Jonas Valanciunas and the brute power of Zion Williamson, opting for some finesse finishes was a smart call. They’re pretty to watch, too.

#5 Defending Zion

Speaking of Zion and his incredible strength and skillset, the Celtics did a pretty good job defending him. They loaded up in front of him whenever he had the ball but still ensured they could rotate out and get to shooters if he passed the ball off. They also tested out multiple coverages, including cross-matching Holiday — who spent the majority of minutes guarding the powerful forward.

Celtics defensive numbers when guarding Zion Williamson

Guarded Zion Minutes FGM FGA AST TOV Zion's shot blocked FG%
Guarded Zion Minutes FGM FGA AST TOV Zion's shot blocked FG%
Jrue Holiday 05:23 1 2 2 0 0 50
Jaylen Brown 01:54 1 2 0 2 0 50
Al Horford 01:53 4 8 1 1 0 50
Jayson Tatum 01:46 3 3 0 0 0 100
Derrick White 00:53 1 2 0 0 1 50
Oshae Brissett 00:46 2 3 1 0 0 66.6
Celtics defensive numbers when guarding Zion Williamson nbastats.com

The above clip is a good example of how Boston looked to contain Zion when he was getting downhill. Al Horford is in drop, so he can pick up the drive as Brown gets dislodged. White rotates over to provide some additional help at the rim, securing a block in the process.

The game plan was simple: keep bodies in front of Zion, pressure the dribble, and get into the ball when contesting shots. Considering his efficient shot selection and incredible strength, the Celtics did a good job in defending one of the most dominant interior scorers in the NBA.

One more clip for the road. Same defensive process. Show length on the perimeter, keep bodies in front of him and have a low helpline helper rotate over to take away an easy path to the rim.

#6 Solid Oshae Brissett minutes

Oshae Brissett provided an energy boost whenever the Celtics were looking a little flat. He rebounded well, was a willing screener, and hustled his butt off on every possession.

This was Brissett's first rebound of the game. You can’t tell me that doesn’t energize everybody around him. Every team needs that one player who can check into a game and bring a totally new level of hustle to help galvanize his teammates.

Brissett isn’t going to be a consistent rotation player. However, when he has received minutes this season, he’s impressed with his selfless high-octane brand of basketball. I’m all for using him as a potential momentum shifter in games like this one — of course, the concept of him being elevated in the rotation due to Luke Kornet and Kristaps Porzingis being absent isn’t lost on me.

Nevertheless, if Boston were struggling to get its foot into the game, I would hope Brissett is one of the first guys Joe Mazzulla turns to.

#7 Queta’s time was flat

I’m going to keep this one short. Neemias Queta has impressed more often than not when he’s been given a chance. Against the Pelicans, he wasn’t much of a factor. He looked indecisive when setting screens. It was once again a step below where you would want those screens to be set. And he looked tentative on defense.

Queta will have better games. He’s had better games. Still, having another seven-foot body to fill in when two other seven-footers are out with injury is something Celtics fans have dreamed of in recent years. Queta is still raw. He’s going to keep improving. That’s an encouraging thought. At least, it is for me.

#8 Gettin’ Nerdy with it: Horns Cross Exit

This clip is one of those possessions where I’m pointing out good process rather than a good result, although the result is desirable, too.

Boston line up in a horns set (with a player on either elbow or above the elbows on the perimeter, and the ball handler above the break.)

Queta sets a cross screen for Tatum, which then becomes an exit screen as he receives the ball on the right side wing. Queta then veer screens for Holiday, allowing him to get inside the three-point line and create a slight defensive rotation.

Holiday doesn’t have a great look at the rim, and his passing options are limited. So, he hands the ball off to Payton Pritchard. From there, Pritchard showcases his ability to create space off the dribble, juking his shoulders, varying his pace, and stopping on a dime to send CJ McCollum a step or two back, generating the room to get the pull-up jumper off.

The reason I like plays like this is because the initial two screening actions force a slight rotation, at which point, Boston is half a second ahead in their process, allowing them to play the rest of the possession on the front foot.

#9 Highlighting a Hauser moment on defense

McCollum is one of the better-scoring guards in the league. However, he isn’t the best finisher around the rim. Instead, he thrives in the mid-range and on the perimeter. Yet, when he’s faced with Hauser, McCollum looks to beat his man off the dribble and get to the rim.

He mustn’t have read the scouting report.

Hauser recovers from being sold on the crossover. He gets back to connect himself to McCollum's hip and forces him away from a straight line drive, giving the Pelicans guard a slightly tougher angle to finish from. Hauser also gets in front of McCollum on the shot release, contesting the release and keeping some distance between the shot and the rim.

“People see a white shooter, I think most people think he can’t play defense,” Mazzulla said on Jan. 13. “Yeah, I said it. And he’s been able to play defense since I’ve coached him in Summer League (in 2021), and he does a really good job of taking tendencies, does a really good job of understanding who he’s guarding.”

That statement has been true for a while. The above clip is a good example of why.

#10 Learning from the Clippers game

Against the LA Clippers, the Celtics struggled to find a rhythm on defense. Part of that was likely due to their inability to convert shots on the other side of the court. We’ve seen Boston struggle with that issue before. However, that hasn’t been part of the team’s DNA this season.

Against the Pelicans, the Celtics once again came out a little rigid in terms of shooting the ball. It took a while to get the juices flowing and begin to get the results they deserved on a per-possession basis. However, the Celtics didn’t let those offensive struggles affect their defense. They locked in. The same can be said vice versa, too.

When the Pelicans found a way to score, Boston didn’t sprint up the court looking to even the odds. They stuck to their gameplan, they executed their system, they played Boston Celtics Mazzulla-ball. It wasn’t a pretty win, but it was a win nonetheless, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s all that matters.

Looking ahead

I wasn’t here for the takeaways after the Clippers game. I had a basketball event to attend over here in the UK. Quick shoutout to Oliver Fox for holding it down!

Boston is back in action tonight on the second night of a back-to-back. I would assume that means Porzingis returns to the rotation, and Horford sits out. If Porzingis's ankle is still an issue, we may see a lot of Queta. Either way, it should be a fun game against the Indiana Pacers and our first chance to see them since they acquired Pascal Siakam.

I’ll be back in the AM with the takeaways from what is hopefully another win! Have a great day, everyone.

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