Lessons from Celtics-Clippers: casual holiday obliteration

Lessons from Celtics-Clippers: casual holiday obliteration

The holidays are for a lot of things. It’s a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a time to relax, unwind, and chase the girl of your dreams through the airport on Christmas Eve to the theme from Chariots of Fire, ignoring all relevant security measures in the name of true love.

But it’s also a time for unending NBA basketball, as part of the deal for professional basketball players is occasionally getting sent on a holiday west coast trip. The Celtics drew that straw this year, and event number one was to have their heart broken by Stephen Curry, causing me to lose my entire mind.

Not a great welcome to California, but the Celtics have proceeded to take out their anger on the cities of Sacramento and Los Angeles. I needed a chill, unproblematic win this weekend, and I got just what the doctor ordered.

On Saturday afternoon, the Celtics popped the Clippers in the Christmas box and punted them back to San Diego. This unadulterated destruction derailed the Clippers hype-train, who recently won nine straight and were starting to think the James Harden trade wasn’t a totally horrendous idea.

We might be back to thinking it was a totally horrendous idea, because the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers were completely unable to hang with the Kristaps Porzingis-less Celtics. Whether Leonard or Porzingis is a better health bet is an open question, but it’s pretty clear who the better supporting cast is.

I don’t know how many more times I can emphasize how much of a throttling this was. At times, the Clippers looked like they just weren’t running fast enough to keep up with the Celtics’ relentless pace. It was run, run, run, run, run for a full hour, and while this was pretty clearly going to be a win from the get-go, two things turned it into a certified blowout.

1. Burying opponents in an avalanche of three-pointers

Thing One was an unyielding barrage of threes, hitting 25 of 53 shots from outside. That is a ridiculous amount of points to come from a shot that is easy to execute and can come from any angle, and the Clippers mere 11 triples was totally insufficient to deal with that type of volume.

This is a sometimes-concerning but sometimes-unbeatable strategy most Celtics fans are starting to call “Mazzulla Ball,” which is by no means a novel idea. “Chuck a ton of threes” isn’t really a revolutionary offense, but the Celtics are the first team I can remember that has an entire team built around executing it.

“I like math.” — Joe Mazzulla on his team’s three-point shooting output

Famous “chuck a ton of threes” teams include the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks and the Harden-era Rockets, but both teams had glaring non-shooters on the roster playing real minutes. The Celtics have on the other hand have an ideal top-eight that includes zero non-shooters, and several bona fide elite snipers.

The Celtics shoot the most threes per game in the league, and get the highest percentage of their points from beyond the arc, too. Head coach Joe Mazzulla and staff are a very analytics-driven bunch, so the roster is built around one simple question: can you shoot threes?

Even more telling how the Celtics open games. Eleven of the Celtics’ first 14 shots were three-pointers, including this 30-foot Derrick White moonshot that had no chance to go in:

This one was pretty late in the shot clock, so I understand the pull. But the sheer distance that he shot it from is emblematic of how Mazzulla coaches the guys. White shot 18 whole threes against the Warriors, and has had the greenest of green-lights the entire season. The Celtics as a whole have been launching in the first quarter, and it can sometimes dig them in an early hole, like against the Cavaliers and Kings last week. But if the variance swings their way, the Celtics can jump out to a huge lead early.

It’s almost like they are a football team trying to establish the run. If the three-pointers are falling, the defense is forced to play up, opening the court for the Celtics to dissect with their embarrassment of offensive talent.

2. Neemias Queta. That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

You know what else a ton of threes can produce? Offensive rebounds, which Saturday afternoon were mass-produced by Thing Two: Neemias Queta. Is he the backup center the Celtics have been looking for? Maybe. Is he the reincarnation of Wilt Chamberlain? Possibly. Is he the greatest center of all time? Perhaps.

He had six offensive rebounds, which is a ridiculous number for an end of the bench role player. Queta crashed the glass like he was the captain of the Titanic and the glass was the iceberg. He brought infectious energy, sacrificing life and limb to keep possessions alive, a bit like how Payton Pritchard used to play when he couldn’t make a three to save his life.

I always appreciate a guy who follows shots, but I’d much prefer guys like Pritchard hit threes as a regular part of the offense. Queta, on the other hand, is seven-feet tall, giving him a distinct advantage as a bull-in-a-china-shop rebounder. He doesn’t have to produce anything offensively; he just needs to come in and break stuff.

Even so, I’d caution everyone against a full-on Queta coronation, as while he was electric on Saturday, he is a truly abhorrent defender who won’t attempt a three-pointer all season and struggles to finish at the rim. That clashes pretty hard with Thing One, and I doubt that a healthy Celtics team will rely on Queta much in the postseason.

But guys like him are what keep the season humming, and keep Porzingis and Horford from collapsing before they get to the finish line. For now, I’ll appreciate the glory of Neemy and ask no further questions.

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