#1 First-half transition defense
The Boston Celtics struggled to match the pace of the Washington Wizards in the first half of their matchup on Friday. Washington consistently leaked out after missed shots and turnovers, finding significant success when getting into a foot race against Boston’s defense.
Washington had 18 fast-break points in the first quarter and added another 8 in the second. That’s 26 points against a lackluster defense that allowed the Wizards to hang around going into half-time.
Boston should have expected the Wizards to push the pace whenever they got the chance. They rank fourth in the NBA for transition possessions and second for transition field-goal percentage. The Celtics are well-rested at the moment. It’s hard to imagine they were unprepared in terms of scouting reports, too. So, that leaves effort and focus as the primary factor.
Throughout the season, Joe Mazzulla’s team has been locked in on both sides of the court. However, there’s been some slippage at times in recent games. Mazzulla has noted how it’s not bad habits but rather bad stretches. I can agree with that. The key is not to let those stretches become a habit.
#2 An interior focus
It was another tough perimeter shooting night for the Celtics. They hit 11 of 34 from deep, good for 32.4%. Sam Hauser was 1-of-6. Tatum was 3-of-10. Jaylen Brown was 0-of-1. Derrick White was 0-of-4.
These kind of nights happen. Sometimes, they happen in succession.
I liked that Boston came into the game with a focus on pressuring the rim and using their size advantage. With that mindset, their perimeter struggles weren’t as well pronounced. Instead, the Celtics found ways to get to their spots around the rim and in the mid-range. The offense still flowed.
Most importantly, nobody's head dropped. Everyone stayed focused. They executed. They pushed the temp. And the misses didn’t stop the defense from finding a new gear in the second half.
We've all been asking for the ability to switch focuses on a game-to-game basis. On some nights, threes will be falling, and it will look like the rim is 18 feet wide. When that happens, fire away. Other nights, when there’s a lid on it, drive to the rack and let the shots from the perimeter fall as they may.
That’s the approach Mazzulla’s team took on Friday, and it allowed them to remain competitive and ultimately win the game despite their defensive issues in the first half and their limited success from the perimeter.
#3 Boston needs to stay locked-in
I get it. The All-Star break is right around the corner. It’s been a long run of games since the season tipped off in October. The Celtics have some breathing room at the top of the Eastern Conference. They have the best record in the league. It’s easy to take your foot off the gas at times. Especially in games, you’re expecting to win simply due to the talent at your disposal.
Nevertheless, the Celtics need to dig deep. They need to remember that every win is another step toward building the championship habits we always hear about. Sure, when your goals are based around the playoffs, the regular season can seem inconsequential, but to me, it’s anything but. This is where plays are committed to memory. Where everybody learns to get the best out of each other. And most importantly, it’s where resilience and grit are built and honed.
I get that not every game can be a blowout. Honestly, for me, that wouldn’t be enjoyable anyway. But figuring out how to stay focused on a night-to-night basis, regardless of who you’re facing, is the next step for this team. Fortunately, it’s only a small step for them to take.
#4 Porzingis, you’re killing em’
Kristaps Porzingis was a walking mismatch against the Wizards. They didn’t have anyone who could match up with him for size or skill at his position. The result was 34 points, 14 of which came from the line, where he shot 100%.
“I wanted to make them pay, right?” Porzingis said. “They just traded away their five-man, and they don’t really have a big man, so those are the types of games that Joe, Brad, and the front office brought me here for, to punish those mismatches and create some advantages for us.”
Whenever Porzingis got the ball, he looked like a genuine threat to score. His post-work was a joy to watch. His footwork continues to impress. Yet, for me, it’s his mobility in space that continually leaves me dumbfounded.
I’ve pointed this play out countless times this season. It’s Boston’s “slice action” out of a side-line out-of-bounds (SLOB) play. Usually, the Celtics run this for Tatum. Yet, with the All-NBA forward taking a breather, Porzingis was the designated scorer in the play.
Watch Porzingis as he comes off White’s screen. He turns his body to show he’s available for the pass. He receives the ball. He turns to face the rim, no dribbles, one step, dunk. That’s a 7’2’’ center running passing routes on an NBA court. There’s a reason he was the original unicorn.
You can see that movement again here. Watches how he seals his man as he’s siding into the post. He already controls the advantage before he’s even received the ball. His gather on the drop-step splits the defense, and then he has the space and height advantage to nail the jumper.
Games like this one remind you of how important Porzignis is going to be for the Celtics' chances of winning a championship this season. The fact he’s so much fun to root for is just the icing on the cake.
#5 A strong Tatum game
Ok, Tatum’s perimeter shot wasn’t falling the way we would have liked. He took 10 shots from deep, making 3 of them. If he had hit one more and finished the game with 40% shooting from deep, that would have been a strong night on the perimeter. When the margins are that slender, I tend to err on the side of positivity.
Outside of his perimeter shooting, Tatum was everywhere. He defended well (in the second half,) he created for others, and he rebounded at his usual high level. He flirted with a triple-double in an early February game with multiple other All-Star-level guys around him. What’s not to like?
One of my favorite things about Tatum is how he can navigate the floor in space. He’s strong enough to fight through contact and skilled enough to glide through a defense. In the above clip, the Wizards don’t offer much resistance, but the overall play is something we've seen from Tatum time and time again this season. His court navigation is something that doesn’t get enough praise.
This possession is how you would want every drive-and-kick possession to go if you had a choice. Tatum drives toward the rim, forces a major defensive collapse from Washington, kicks it out to the best perimeter shooter on the floor, and boom, a wide-open three to extend the lead.
Tatum — and Brown, for that matter — have both got so good at making their presence felt throughout a game without the need to take over. It’s been a fun aspect of their individual growth this season and one that bodes well moving forward.
#6 Gettin’ Nerdy With It: Derrick White, inverted screener
This possession is a great example of why inverted screens can be important to a team’s offensive system/philosophy. Here, White is the inverted screener for Brown. Corey Kispert and Kyle Kuzma are lined up in the “weakside i” on defense, with Kispert’s role being to provide nail help and guard the wing.
As White sets the screen, the Wizards look to trap Brown, allowing White to short-roll toward the nail and engaging Kispert in the process. This allows Holiday to lift onto the wing to receive the pass and get a wide-open three.
The possession created a mismatch, manipulated the Wizard’s nail defense, and generated an open three. And all of that came from using a guard as a screener. That’s a successful offensive possession, irrespective of whether the shot falls or not.
#7 Pritchard’s half-court heaves
He made this one.
He made this one, too, but he got the shot off a fraction too late.
Payton Pritchard is all about the buzzer-beater (even if the second one was too late) ⏰ ⏰ ⏰ pic.twitter.com/AZIaBgZshS— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) February 10, 2024
You could say that Pritchard was Pritchard-ing on some Steph is Steph-ing vibes. I’m here for him being the designated half-court heave taker for the rest of his tenure in Boston.
#8 Jrue was Jrue-ing
I used the same joke to end the seventh takeaway as I did to start the eighth; I’m aware of my dad-joke vibes. I can’t help it. I’m sorry.
Holiday missed the Celtics game against the Atlanta Hawks earlier in the week. Upon his return to the rotation, he made his presence felt. One of the more impressive aspects of what Holiday brings to the rotation is his scoring out of the dunker spot. You need to be strong, quick, and highly confident to operate as an inverted dunker-spot threat. We’ve seen Holiday thrive in that position all season.
Holiday has a knack for ghosting his way into space. It’s like he can move without being seen or heard. Here, he does it out of the dunker spot to open himself up for an easy bucket at the rim.
Same thing here, too. Holiday starts the possession as the inverted dunker-spot guy; the defense forgets about him, and he finds some space, gets the pass, and another two easy points.
Boston’s spacing and elite scoring threats likely help Holiday thrive when he’s occupying space in the dunker spot. His strength and scoring are also key factors. Nevertheless, Boston has a different dimension when he’s on the floor, and it appears to help the team keep their rhythm during half-court offensive sets.
Oh, I also continue to stand on the fact Holiday is among the best rebounding guards in the league. He finished the game with seven rebounds on Friday to strengthen that point further.
#9 Luke Kornet needs to find some rhythm
Ignore the fact Luke Kornet’s box score reads like someone who played 46 seconds of the game. There’s more to being a winning player than filling up the stat sheet — we all watched the early years of Marcus Smarts’ career, so we all get it.
However, Kornet wasn’t making much of an impact. Yes, he plays his role well when operating as a dropping big that helps contain pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the half-court. And yes, he can be a valuable screener. Yet, we rarely saw either of those things from him against Washington.
With Xavier Tillman soon to be part of the rotation, Kornet needs to find the rhythm we saw from him before his injury. When he’s playing to the best of his ability, he’s among the best third-string bigs in the NBA — but that was before Tillman entered the discussion as a third-string center. There’s going to be a serious battle for minutes at Kornet’s position, he can’t afford many more non-impact nights if he wants to keep his spot.
#10 Into the Mazzullaverse
“Ever seen Spider-Man? Into the Spider-Verse? There was like 20 different Spider-Men? That’s like our team,” Mazzulla said. “Success is going to look different each and every night, and I think the guys are doing a good job of understanding what that balance is, and as long as the process towards how we’re going about attacking the other team is right, and it fits with what’s best for the team, then it’s just executing.”
I love this analogy from Mazzulla. Some nights, success will come from the defensive end. Others, the perimeter. And then, there will be times it’s around the rim or the free-throw line. As we’ve already seen this season, there’s enough talent that you ride who has the hot hand. We don’t need the same story every night; we just need the chapter to have a strong lead into the next one.
The Celtics have an early game against the Miami Heat on Sunday. As I will always say when this happens, those early games are great for me. It’s a 7 PM tip-off in the UK. I can watch the game live, be part of the online conversations, and just enjoy myself. The issue is, I rarely see an early game victory when the Celtics are playing.
However, as the game is against the Miami Heat, I’m going to hope the Celtics come ready to make their mark and record another win over the inconsistent NBA Finalists from last season. I’ll be back on Monday with the takeaways either way. So, I’ll catch you all then!