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Finding a way: 10 Takeaways from Celtics/Hawks

The Boston Celtics took care of business against a resillient Atlanta Hawks team.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

#1 Al Horford steps up

Stepping into a starting role in Jrue Holiday’s absence, Al Horford had himself a big night. Playing against his former team, the veteran big man was highly effective on both sides of the floor. He was aggressive on offense. And he made smart decisions with his positioning and how he attacked his defensive responsibilities.

Horford ended the game with 14 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four blocks, and two steals. In typical Horford fashion, he did everything within the flow of the game. Yes, he was more aggressive on the offensive end, but nothing was forced.

I really liked the above possession — which ended in a Horford assist. Jaylen Brown can’t find a lane to attack at the top of the perimeter. The ball goes in rotation, finding Jayson Tatum in the strong-side corner. Horford sets a pin-down and then slips, catching the ball around the dunker spot. He turns, sees Kristaps Porzingis cutting, and makes the easy pass for an uncontested look at the rim.

It’s that type of secondary creation that makes Horford such a valuable player on the Celtics roster. I would imagine it’s also one of the reasons why he’s such a well-liked teammate throughout the roster.

And how can you not enjoy seeing Horford roll back the years and get out on the break after getting a “steal?” I mean, there’s something exciting about seeing your aging veteran center rolling back the years and leading by example.

Horford is undoubtedly one of Boston’s most important players. Not because he’s a top-three talent on the roster. And not because he’s a 20-points-per-night threat. He plays the game the right way. He keeps everybody focused on the task at hand. And he comes up with blocks like this.

#2 Derrick White comes alive in the fourth

Playing against Trae Young, who beat him for an All-Star injury replacement selection, Derrick White looked like he was out there trying to prove a point. Of course, we will never know if that was the case. I’m just going on his aggression down the stretch.

White ended the fourth quarter with 12 points, two rebounds, one assist, and one steal. Not only did those numbers lead the Celtics, but they also led everyone on the floor. All of White’s fourth-quarter looks came from the perimeter. He hit four of those five attempts.

Yet it was earlier in the game, during one of Boston’s designed actions, that White stood out to me the most.

The Celtics go to their “chin series,” getting White open in the paint. However, Porzingis fires the pass to Horford in the corner, missing White, who has a solid look at the basket. Instead of giving up on the possession, White positions himself in the dunker spot and waits to see how the defense loads up on Horford’s drive out of the corner.

As Horford draws three defenders, White moves along the baseline, creating a straight-line pass for the veteran big man. With no one around him, White gets the easy finish.

Why did this impress me? Because, for me, it encapsulated White’s overall approach to the game. He’s patient. He makes smart plays. And he isn’t looking for his shot — he’s looking for the best option available. When he saw Horford was driving, he knew an opportunity to provide an outlet might be needed, and he made sure he was there when/if that occurred.

Of course, White’s improved three-point shooting can’t go unnoticed, either. The degree of difficulty on this shot is under-rated. He catches the ball high, lands off balance, keeps the rock in his shooting pocket, and quickly gets the ball back up. The fact the shooting form was smooth, and it hit nothing but the net, is impressive and speaks to the work he’s put in behind the scenes to improve that jumper.

#3 Porzingis’ interior game

Some nights, Porzingis does most of his damage on the perimeter. On other occasions, he does it in the post. Against the Hawks, Porzingis was the interior threat the Celtics have been missing in recent years.

Of his 19 shots, Porzingis only took four on the perimeter. The other 15 came from the two-point range, with him converting 11 of them.

“High character person, obviously a player,” Tatum told the media after the game. “It just makes it easy for all of us on both ends of the floor, his ability to shoot over the top of anybody, attack mismatches.”

When the Celtics acquired Porzingis in the summer, I expected him to be a post-threat. I expected him to have a face-up game. Yet, his ability to turn the corner with the rock and get downhill while finishing through contact isn’t something I had on my bingo card. Yet, we’ve seen plays like the one above unfold on multiple occasions this season. To me, that is one of the most impressive aspects of his game, for his size and his skill set.

This possession is another good example of how Porzignis can give you a scoring threat when in space around the post. He fakes a screen, angles his body, and calls for the ball. When he receives the pass, he quickly faces up and drives to the rim, once again finishing through contact.

I’m a fan of how the Celtics look to create interior scoring opportunities. I like how they lean into player versatility and look to create mismatches via a plethora of different screening actions (which we often look at). Having someone like Porzingis, who is incredibly difficult to guard in the post, is a luxury that Boston can consistently rely on.

#4 Jaylen Brown needs to be more aggressive

I’ve loved Jaylen Brown’s growth this season. His increased aggression is pressuring the rim, bullying his way through defenders, and getting to his spots, which have all been bright spots in a supernova of a season. Yet, against the Hawks — his hometown team — Brown looked a little flat in terms of explosiveness, first step, and aggression.

One game is never a cause to worry. He still had a good overall performance. Still, I would like to see him get back to that pitbull mentality sooner rather than later. After all, it’s what made him an All-Star, and it’s why he’s thrived in the featured scorer role that has been allowing him to showcase some of the best basketball of his career.

#5 Jayson Tatum is better when attacking the rim

Tatum 2-of-13 from the perimeter. At some point, you’ve got to accept it’s not your night from deep and adjust your approach. That point becomes more prominent when you have a skillset like Tatum’s that allows you to get downhill at will and finish around or through contact.

Tatum can attack out of post-ups.

He can out-muscle defenders when driving from the perimeter.

And his fadeaway game is cash in the mid-range. There’s no reason to stick with a shot profile that doesn’t work at night. Yes, Tatum is a valuable three-point shooter. When he gets it going, he’s almost unguardable on the perimeter. But on nights like this, where nothing seems to drop, adjusting his mindset to get downhill and create easy scoring opportunities makes perfect sense.

Again, this isn’t a reason to worry. Nor is it a knock on Tatum’s overall performance. Yet, that one simple adjustment could be the difference between a bad game and one that changed the flow of the game.

#6 Gettin’ nerdy with it: The return of Ghost Flare

The Celtics have run this play at times during the season. It’s one of my personal favorites due to its simplicity and how it often tees up Brown for a drive to the rim or a pull-up jumper on the wing. Yet, we haven’t seen the Celtics go to it in a while, so it stood out to me when they ran it mid-way through the second quarter.

The possession starts with the Celtics threatening a Zoom action. Luke Kornet sets the wide pin-down. Brown curls around the perimeter. However, rather than receiving a DHO, he ghosts his screen for White before using a flare screen from Porzingis to get open on the weakside wing.

From there, it’s an open lane to the rim. Brown uses his strength to hold the defense off and gets a fairly easy finish at the cup. Loved it.

#7 Boston’s nail defense makes them hard to drive on

During previous iterations of the Ten Takeaways, you’ve probably read me writing about how the Celtics like to pinch toward the nail. Another way of saying this, is they have consistent nail help. Zooming out a bit, that pinching occurs around the floor, which is known as gap help.

Yet, it’s that nail and gap help that has made the Celtics such a difficult team to break down off the dribble when looking to attack from the perimeter.

Here’s a good example of the nail help Boston has been utilizing. Once again, our good friend Horford chips in with the help. The Hawks go to a “ram ghost” action. Some ball rotation followed by a fake DHO creates a gap for Atlanta to attack. Horford pinches down toward the ball-handler, taking away the gap, forcing the pick-up, and pressuring the shot.

It’s difficult to attack space against Boston. Primarily because that space is quickly taken away. Here’s another example.

In this instance, it’s White providing the help. I wouldn’t classify this as gap help, as there a lot of space — rather than a gap in the defense. However, White does rotate, take away a potential escape dribble, and force the pick-up with his swipe down. The terminology may change, but the principle remains the same — Boston forces early pick-ups and tough shots with their help defense and switchable rotations on the defensive end.

Throughout the course of a game, these possessions can become a pain for opposing offenses and can shave multiple scoring possessions, which, in turn, helps create somewhat of a gap on the scoreboard.

#8 What a pass

Not much needs to be said here. Great pass. Tatum’s improved processing speed has been evident all season. He’s spotting openings as they appear and his passing ability has improved to a level where he can consistently make these reads, regardless of where he is on the court.

#9 Tillman will help in these types of games

A few hours before the game between the Celtics and the Hawks tipped off, the Celtics made a move to acquire Xavier Tillman. Once he’s acclimated with his new teammates and is part of the rotation, he will likely make an impact in these sorts of games. His physical presence would have been beneficial against Onyeka Okongwu. His screening ability could have created some additional drive opportunities or set guys free for wide-open threes.

And Tillman’s passing game would give the Celtics some additional options in delay actions. We don’t know how he’s going to slot into the rotation yet and whether he will be behind or ahead of Kornet in the pecking order. What we do know is that he brings physicality and a different option for Joe Mazzulla to throw out there when looking to create advantages. Especially when dealing with physicality. I’m excited to see how he looks as part of Boston’s rotation.

#10 Celtics need to recognize when the threes aren’t falling

Earlier in this article, I wrote about Tatum needing to recognize when his threes aren’t falling and adjusting his shot profile to more interior opportunities. Well, the same can be said for the Celtics. While I would like to see them slightly reduce the number of threes they take per game, I’m not one who thinks they’re living and dying by their perimeter offense. I think there’s a reasonable balance across the board.

However, this Celtics team has the interior scoring talent to be a serious problem when they commit to pressuring the rim. Sure, still take threes to keep the defense honest and ensure the spacing remains intact. But, when you know they’re not falling, shift the priority; the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results — of course, I’m talking in a single game, not in the broader sense here.

Looking ahead

The Celtics face the Washington Wizards on Friday. By then, we will know if Brad Stevens has made any additional moves and will have a good feel for how the roster will look for the remainder of the season. As usual, I’m hoping for a win, but I will be here for the takeaways no matter how things shake out. Until then, enjoy the trade deadline, and I’ll catch you all on Saturday morning.

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