#1 Porzingis has a new first-quarter role
First-quarter dominance has often been reserved for Jaylen Brown this season. However, in recent games, the Boston Celtics have turned toward Kristaps Porzingis in the opening stages of games. Joe Mazzulla went back to the versatile big man against the Miami Heat as the Boston Celtics looked to punish the lack of size available to Erik Spoelstra.
It’s no coincidence that the first quarter was Porzingis’ best scoring stretch. 11 of his 25 points came during that opening stretch. From there, Miami had to respect his presence on the floor, regardless of where he was situated on a play-to-play basis.
When you, a big man, can work out of the post like this while splitting two defenders and still getting a bucket, it can be demoralizing for the opposing defense. That’s especially true when, a few minutes earlier, that same big man was hitting an above-the-break three in space.
Moving Porzingis into the first-quarter scoring role has been an interesting shift in recent games. It’s likely due to match-ups. However, it’s allowing him to get into an early rhythm, which the Celtics are then feeding off throughout the night.
Outside of the first quarter, It’s worth re-iterating the level of spacing the big man provides the Celtics. Everyone has a ton of room to operate when driving the lane. Kick-out opportunities are consistently available. And the passing we’re seeing directly correlates to the spacing on offer.
#2 This means Jaylen Brown is playing in a different role, too
Brown has been enjoying arguably the most productive season of his career. A significant aspect of his uptick in production has been based on him being a featured scorer within the Celtic’s offense. Brown has been tasked with pressuring the rim at will and getting to his spots in the mid-range.
Most importantly, though, Brown has been the primary first-quarter player. That suits Brown. It’s not a coincidence that his overall performances have taken a leap since he’s been given the freedom to get downhill on offense and has been tasked with running up his stat line during the opening 12 minutes.
Yet, with Porzingis occupying that role in recent games, Brown found a new way to make his presence known, and against Miami, that came in the fourth quarter.
Brown is at his best when he’s working to get to his spots. His poise and calmness when fighting through traffic can lull you into a sense of security. However, when he chooses to get his shot off, there’s rarely much a defender can do about it, especially if he’s utilizing a bump to create the additional space.
Nevertheless, I prefer it when Brown starts the game as the featured scorer. There’s less need for him to force things on offense. He brings an interior scoring option off the dribble, which when utilized early, forces the defense to lower their pick-up points, and helps the overall spacing on the perimeter.
Brown played well against the Heat. He contributed on both sides of the floor and had some solid defensive moments. However, his role as the featured scorer was working. Hopefully, we will see the Celtics go back to it in the near future.
#3 Tatum’s mid-range game
Having a star player who can casually flirt with a triple-double while not taking over the game is a luxury most teams don’t have. It’s also a luxury most of us take for granted. Nevertheless, what I liked the most about Tatum’s play was his commitment to attacking the mid-range.
The Heat consistently left spots open around the mid-block, and Tatum continually found ways to punish them for it.
Of course, we had the usual space creation via a bump into the defender, with a smooth turnaround fadeaway taking place. However, we also had a couple of buckets that caught the eye, with Tatum pulling up off the dribble to hit middies right in the face of the defense.
When Tatum hits his mid-range looks, his offensive threat becomes amplified. It’s hard enough trying to stop him from pulling up on the perimeter or driving toward the rim. Having the pull-up jumper in the mid-range readily available gives him a complete advantage over whoever is trying to slow him down.
Of course, his consistently improving passing ability is also another wrinkle defenses have to account for, and that was once again on display. The best illustration of Tatum’s passing comes on his final assist of the game, where he operated as a screener, short-rolled, and then hit a cutting Brown for an easy bucket at the rim. The pass isn’t impressive; however, the defensive manipulation and court vision stand out.
#4 Going zone early
I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably say it a few more times throughout the remainder of the regular season, but I like the zone defense, and I don’t mind that it’s not perfect right now. The Celtics need multiple defensive looks. They need options once the postseason begins. That means they have to work through some tough possessions to smooth things out and become proficient in multiple systems.
As such, while it was somewhat of a surprise that Boston went to a zone defense early against the Heat, it didn’t make me unhappy. First of all, it was only for a few possessions, and second of all, the Heat is a good litmus test for how that system needs to continue improving.
Here’s a good example of the “2-1-2 spy” zone that the Celtics like to run. The biggest issue here is how compact it became as Terry Rozier attacked off the dribble. You can see Jrue Holiday trying to dictate where everyone should be. There looks to be a little confusion between everyone on the floor.
Reps. In order to improve at anything, you need reps. Erik Spoelstra is arguably the best coach in the league. Testing out your zone defense against him and his coaching staff is a good way to find holes in the system and work toward plugging them. We’re heading toward the All-Star break. Experimenting with these games makes sense.
#5 Delayed cutting
The half-court offense was clicking on multiple levels. Dribble penetration, screening actions, baseline cuts, the Celtics were executing everything with poise and precision. Still, the delayed cutting actions stood out to me. Mazzulla utilized these a ton during his first season as head coach. We often see one or two delayed cuts each night. However, against the Heat, they felt a little more prominent as part of the overall game plan.
Notice how Al Horford times his cut? He relocates toward the top of the perimeter, waits for the defense to shift over toward Brown and Porzingis, and then darts straight through the center of the court to get an easy finish at the rim.
Then, in the above clip, we see Derrick White operating as the delayed cutter, this time via a 45-cut toward the middle of the paint, where he received a hand-off from Holiday. I like using these delayed cutting actions as a release valve. They’re designed to attack the defense to guard the ball-handler and a potential passing target once it’s shifted over.
Ideally, we begin to see more of these actions as the season wears on. Boston has multiple slashing talents on the roster. Tatum and Brown both thrive when attacking via stampede cuts or when receiving a hand-off and hitting a step-back jumper around the mid-block. It’s also an incredibly difficult action to deal with, especially in terms of anticipating them and trying to negate the impact they have.
#6 A physical game
Any game against the Heat is going to be physical. As Sunday’s game wore on, things got increasingly chippy between both sides. There were some unfortunate injuries. Some questionable moments from both sides. And, at times, we got glimpses of what a potential playoff series between these two teams could look like.
That’s the Heat’s MO, though. They muck things up. They force broken possession. They get physical to rattle their opponents and take them out of rhythm. Credit to the Celtics for sticking to their game plan and standing their ground as the game got increasingly competitive as the fourth quarter wound down.
As a fanbase, we’ve often called for the Celtics to be better in physical games. We’ve asked that they handle the pressure of being pushed, scratched, bumped, and bruised. They’re showing they’re capable of doing that this season, and it’s leading to wins in difficult circumstances.
#7 Holiday’s value as a floor spacer
In the last edition of the Takeaways, I was praising Holiday’s value as an inverted dunker spot threat. Now, I’m singing his praises for his ability to space the floor. That’s Holiday’s game in a nutshell, though. His versatility — on both sides of the ball — is what makes him such a valuable member of the rotation.
Against Miami, Holiday hit five threes. Five. That led all players across both teams. Interestingly, four of those five came from the left corner.
Personally, I liked his step-back corner three the most, primarily due to the space he created on the jab step, and also because he’s a fourth or fifth option hitting big-time off-the-dribble jumpers, reminding everybody that he’s an All-Star level talent.
Of course, with that type of perimeter success, Holiday rapidly increased his value as a floor spacer during the game. You can’t help off a guy who’s hit 80% of his perimeter jumpers in a game. That gave the Celtics an additional avenue to explore and exploit. Holiday has a big role to play in this potential championship run. It’s fun to see all the different ways he can impact a game. Hopefully, there’s still more we’ve not seen yet.
#8 Derrick’s block
Can we just take a moment to appreciate the degree of difficulty on this Derrick White block?
White navigates the drag screen, gets back in front of Tyler Herro, gets beat on the crossover, recovers, and gets the block. That isn’t normal. That’s not what most guards are capable of.
Loved it. Such a great hustle play from White, who continues to be the ultimate connector and glue guy for Mazzulla’s team. Even on a night where he wasn’t a significant part of the offense from a scoring standpoint, he still stood out as a key member of the rotation.
#9 Tyler Herro stepped up
The Heat had a tough night. They lost Josh Richardson to a shoulder injury. Jimmy Butler was absent for personal reasons, and then Terry Rozier fell with a knee injury. Yet, in typical Heat fashion, Tyler Herro stepped up to the plate.
Herro has 22 points in the second half. He proved he could be a lead ball-handler against one of the best defenses in the NBA. And he reminded everyone that he can create for himself off the dribble, the catch, and when running pick-and-roll actions. Oh, he can create for others, too.
If the Celtics and Heat go toe-to-toe in the postseason and Herro is healthy, he’s going to be a problem. He’s too shifty and too good at mixing up his pace, and that makes him tough to guard. Nevertheless, as I said, with the zone defense, getting reps is important. It doesn’t matter if those reps are using a system or guarding a player that could cause issues during the postseason.
Boston got a good look at what Herro can do in this game. It will give them a chance to study the film and find ways to slow him down should the two teams meet in the postseason.
#10 Prayers up for T-Ro
Rozier went down hard. It was a non-contact issue. He instantly began clutching his knee and writhing in pain. Hopefully, Rozier will be ok. He might play for the Heat, but after years of being with the Charlotte Hornets and not having an opportunity to play for anything, I think we were all happy Rozier was getting another chance on a legitimate team. Hopefully, the injury looked worse than what it is, and he will be back on the floor in the coming weeks. Prayers up to Scary Terry.
The Boston Celtics have a back-to-back against the Brooklyn Nets coming up. It’s their last two games before the All-Star break. Hopefully, we will see them add another two wins to their regular season record. If not, it doesn’t mean the world is ending. This Celtics team has looked like they’re ready for the break in recent weeks. As it continues to draw closer, I wouldn’t be surprised if they began to look a little lackadaisical.
As always, though, I’ll be here rooting for a win. And whatever happens, I’ll catch you all on Wednesday and Thursday morning as we look at how the Celtics added another win (I hope) against Eastern Conference competition.