Back in business: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Suns

Back in business: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Suns

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#1 Losing streaks

Heading into the game against the Phoenix Suns, the Boston Celtics were on a two-game slide. Joe Mazzulla’s team has only lost two consecutive games on two occasions this season. They haven’t lost more than that all year. So, as weird as it feels to say, the Celtics were on the brink of their biggest losing streak as they suited up to face the Suns.

Fortunately, the Celtics went out there and handled their business, navigating a stellar performance from Kevin Durant while finding ways to secure the win and avoid a three-game skid that would like to have set the bloodhounds on Boston’s trail to begin the week.

This isn’t necessarily a genuine takeaway, but for me, it was one of the biggest talking points entering the game and likely would have increased the pressure on Boston’s shoulders had things not gone their way. The fact that losing three games would be seen as cataclysmic in some sections only speaks to the quality of Boston’s roster and our high expectations for them to execute consistently.

#2 Tatum’s high minutes

Jayson Tatum played a game-leading 42 minutes. During Boston’s losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets, Tatum struggled to find his rhythm and produced some disjointed performances on the offensive end. Those struggles were part of the reason why he wanted to stay on the court as the game heated up.

“It just felt like I was getting into a rhythm at some point,” Tatum told the media after the game. “But I would make a couple of shots and then miss three or four. The game was starting to get competitive and things like that and I just wanted to stay in. I don’t really say that many times. But, I just told Joe that I wanted to stay in the rest of the game. I mean, it’s not like I do it all the time. This might have been the second time I’ve done it all season. It’s a feel thing. We trust each other.”

If we’re being honest, Tatum had an inefficient shooting night from the field. He dropped 39.3% of his 28 attempts. Yet, he did find his range from deep, shooting 55.6%. Furthermore, he made a significant impact on the glass and helped orchestrate offense for his teammates.

Whenever Tatum faces Bradley Beal, there will always be an added level of competition. He wants to outdo his close friend. The competitive spirit certainly surfaces.

This dunk was my favorite of all the actions Tatum was involved in throughout the game. The Celtics went to a “Ram action” as the entry set, sprung Tatum loose as he rejected the Al Horford screen, and then, kablam, a thunderous dunk that stood out through the television screen.

It was not Tatum’s best game, not his worst, either. It was just a gritty performance from a player navigating his way back to his best after a short stretch of tough outings.

#3 Kornet comes up with the goods

Luke Kornet didn’t play against the Denver Nuggets. He’s well and truly embroiled in a battle for his roster spot as the playoffs draw near. However, against the Suns, Kornet was an integral piece of Mazzulla’s puzzle.

He screened well, timed his cuts and rolls to the basket, provided an outlet whenever Phoenix sent two at the ball, and, with his size and positioning, did his job on defense as a big man who contained the pick-and-roll.

Kornet is incredibly good at reading how the defense is playing the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations. In the above clip, he appears to be rolling toward the weakside dunker spot. As Jusuf Nurkic slides his feet over and commits to containing Jrue Holiday, Kornet takes a step toward the rim and provides some vertical spacing on the possession. From there. it’s an easy lob pass for Holiday and an easy bucket for the Celtics.

In this clip, Kornet starts the possession by offering to short the pick-and-roll. As Derrick White pops off his screen and Tatum redirects the rock, Kornet looks to dunk in on the post and gain a dominant position. As that happens, White has received a pass and has an easy angle to get the ball into Kornet. Easy bucket.

Kornets movement and team-first mentality make him an ideal rotational big man. He has the size to deter shots around the rim on defense and offer some vertical spacing and post-presence on offense. As the season has worn on, Kornet has continued to improve. He and Tillman will likely split minutes based on matchups, and for Celtics fans, that’s the perfect scenario.

#4 Limiting the rest

I’m a big believer in letting star players do star-player things. Now, I’m not saying you let a big three go off. I’m saying you accept that certain players are nearly unguardable. Last outing, that player was Jokic. This time, it was Kevin Durant. You accept it, and then you lock down everyone else to the best of your ability, which is precisely what the Celtics did.

For the most part, Mazzulla’s team didn’t send two at the ball when Durant was in possession of the rock. They looked to guard him one-on-one, with the caveat that they tried to funnel him away from the three-point line. Phoenix loves to attack the mid-range. The Celtics love to defend the perimeter. It felt like a trap that played into Frank Vogel’s system.

That way, Durant going in the mid-range is manageable. You’re not leaving an open man on the perimeter. You’re cognizant of potential cutters and screeners. You’re baiting Phoenix to beat you from the mid-range.

According to Cleaning The Glass, 38% of the Suns offense came from the mid-range. Only 33% came on the perimeter. Mazzulla’s defensive game plan had its desired effect. You want to bait Durant, and to a lesser extent, Beal and Devin Booker to take mid-range jumpers, as it limits their perimeter attempts.

Kevin Durant shot chart vs. Celtics

Kevin Durant shot chart vs. Celtics

Holding Durant to three attempts around the rim and seven attempts from the perimeter is solid work. Yes, he’s going to cook around the free-throw line extended, but by staying home on the other talents and spacing the floor, you’re not giving the Suns opportunities to create advantages.

I had this as one of the keys to the game. It certainly helped limit the impact elsewhere on the floor.

#5 The stock exchange can generate buckets

I’m not one for nicknames. But I do like this one for the duo of White and Holiday. I thought these two played a fantastic game. White continues to emerge as a legitimate playmaking threat, especially in the pick-and-roll. We’ve seen a lot more from the Celtics in terms of “dragging it out” after the screen this season, and White has thrived when operating in that type of PnR system.

He ended the game with nine dimes to his name, along with a block and 10 points. White has been a solid connector in recent weeks and is thriving alongside Holiday, as the two combo guards cause havoc on defense and provide reliable decision-making and ball movement on offense.

Sometimes you will get a quick decision out of a pick-and-pop like in th

e clip above.

And sometimes you get a patient probe dribble after dragging out the action, which helps create a passing angle as White draws two defenders to allow the rolling big space to attack the rim.

Of course, Holiday is no slouch when initiating the offense, either. He had six dimes to his name. However, his assists often come from the drive and kick actions as he uses his gravity on the drive to draw additional defenders before making the right read and finding the open man.

Holiday is shooting over 60% from the corner this season. It makes sense that defenses overreact when he gets the ball in his hotspot. Holiday has made reliable reads based on the defense and generated high-quality opportunities out of those possessions.

Overall, having White and Holiday patrolling the passing lanes, defending the perimeter and orchestrating offense in their own ways has significantly boosted the Celtics in the half-court. The Suns aren’t a bad defensive team. They came into the game sitting 12th in the NBA for defensive rating. Yet they struggled to contain the two guards whenever they were operating as primary ball-handlers.

#6 Perimeter defense

As I alluded to when discussing Durant’s shot selection. The Celtics came into this game with a clear gameplan: funnel Phoenix toward the nail. However, they also did a fantastic job in impacting perimeter shot attempts. The Suns went 9-of-31 from deep, and often looked a little tentative to take shots with so much pressure being applied from the Celtics defense.

There’s a reason Boston sits fourth in the NBA for three-point defensive field goal percentage. They have the size, mobility, and defensive intensity to significantly alter shot attempts or impact release points. The Suns couldn’t generate good looks from deep all game, and the looks they did get were anything but comfortable. Solid work from the coaching staff and the players on implementing and executing a great defensive scheme.

#7 The return of the Ghost Flare

I’ve said it a few times this season: The Celtics “Ghost Flare” action is one of my favorite sets they run. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it’s often designed for Jaylen Brown, which means there are multiple options after the catch.

However, we haven’t seen much of that set in recent games. Still, it made an appearance against the Suns.

I’m expecting this action to be a staple during the playoffs. The Celtics have a significantly high success rate with it. No surprise that it ended in a bucket in the above clip, either.

#8 Porzingis rim protection was missed

The Suns ended the game, shooting 77.3% around the rim. On the season, the Celtics are holding teams to 62.5% shooting within four feet of the basket, ranking them 3rd in the NBA. The difference? Kristaps Porzingis wasn’t in the rotation. Thus, the lack of length and mobility in the restricted area allowed the Suns to find some success.

We often speak of Porzingis as the team’s X-factor, primarily due to his three-point shooting and how he unlocked the offensive end spacing. However, he’s also unlocked the defensive system and is a reliable and impactful rim protector.

Porzingis’ absence may not have been missed too much on the offensive end in this game, but the Suns’ success in pressuring the rim and converting their looks indicates that his absence was a factor on the defensive end.

Hopefully, Porzingis was sitting out due to “rest,” however, if he is carrying a slight knock, it makes sense to be cautious with him, given his importance to the Celtics chances in the playoffs.

#9 Horford’s rebounding was big

As you would expect, Al Horford stepped into the starting lineup to replace Porzingis. He quickly made his presence felt on the glass. By the end of the first quarter, Horford had five boards to his name. By the end of the game, he was up to 12.

Factor in Horford’s positional defense, versatility in being a capable switch defender, playing up-to-touch, and operating in drop, his offensive output, and his leadership, and it was a solid night for the veteran big man.

It’s interesting that between them, Tatum and Horford accounted for more than 50% of the Celtics total rebounds. Both were locked in when looking to control the glass, which helped the team keep their foot on the gas and dictate the tempo of the game for stretches.

I’ll leave you with this bucket from Horford, because ageless Al running the short-roll is a thing of beauty.

#10 Jaylen Brown’s surge continued

Jaylen Brown has been on a heater since returning from the All-Star break. He followed up his mega night against the Nuggets with 27-point night against the Suns on 47.6% shooting from the field and 42.9% shooting from the perimeter.

One of my favorite plays for Brown from the Suns game was when the Celtics used him as the roll man out of a “Horns Flare” action. We’ve not seen much of that this season, but putting Brown as a screener has certainly been something Mazzulla has experiemented with in the last few weeks.

Brown has been impressive all season. I’m running out of ways to praise him. That’s why I chose to share a play that I enjoyed rather than continuing to say, “he’s thriving as a featured scorer” or “his athleticism makes him a problem around the rim.”

At this point in the season, we’ve pretty much said everything we can about the incredible production Brown has been providing the Celtics. Still, unlocking him as an inverted roller could provide a whole host of new and exciting actions and opportunities.

Looking ahead

The Celtics are back in action on Monday night. They will face the Portland Trail Blazers on what will be the first night of a back-to-back. The Utah Jazz will be the second opponent. As such, I wouldn’t expect to see Porzingis back in the rotation until Tuesday. He’s consistently sat out the first night of back-to-back’s this season and I don’t see that changing here. Of course, Horford will likely miss the matchup against Utah.

Both of the upcoming games are ones Boston should be winning. By mid-week, we could be talking about the start of another winning run. I hope so. Only time will tell! Catch everyone on Tuesday morning. Until then, enjoy what’s left of the weekend.

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