The Boston Celtics improved to 11-2 on Sunday night with their 102-100 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. It was a physical affair that saw both rosters giving everything they’ve got. Nevertheless, the Celtics found a way to win, despite the Grizzlies doing to their best to drag the game into the trenches.
These are the type of games the Celtics would have lost in recent years. There was no smooth flow. Fouls were being dished out like candy at a kindergarten party, and nobody would have left without some scratch marks and bruises. Sometimes, it’s not about playing pretty; it’s about digging deep and grinding out a win, which is exactly what the Celtics did.
The Celtics went to a high-tempo offense for the second straight game and stuck to a read-and-react system with very few designed plays. Instead, their execution was more principal-based: empty corners, double drags, etc. At times, that style of offense works well, but we’ve seen over the last 13 games that Boston is at their best when it finds a balance between principal-based offense and some standard-designed actions.
#1 Take a bow, Kristaps Porzingis
From the opening tip, it was clear Joe Mazzulla was looking to feature Kristaps Porzingis on the offensive end. Boston looked for multiple ways to involve the big man and create mismatches and scoring opportunities whenever possible.
Porzingis played every second of the first quarter, racking up 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 blocks. All five of his baskets came inside the paint, forcing the Grizzlies into making mistakes, giving away fouls, and collapsing around the bucket.
This was my favorite action involving Porzingis in the first quarter. The Celtics stuck with their “slice” playbook for a baseline out-of-bounds play, using Payton Pritchard as an inverted screener was designed to force a mismatch. However, Jaren Jackson Jr. does a good job of navigating the action and forces Porzingis into a tough basket. Either way, it led to two points.
#2 A new level of rim protection
Porzingis ended the game with 6 blocks. SIX. The Celtics have a new level of rim protection this season, consistently paying dividends. What’s exciting is that Porzingis blocks don’t just come as a drop defender. He gets to shots on the perimeter, rotates over as a helper, and can shut down second-chance plays if he comes up short on rebound attempts.
Here’s Porzingis getting a block when rotating over as a help defender.
And here he is, blocking a shot in the corner to ice the game.
Porzingis currently sits joint-eighth in the NBA for total blocks, tied with Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers. Judging by his performances so far, he will likely remain a top-10 shot blocker throughout the season, which is a defensive dimension the Celtics have lacked throughout the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era.
#3 Losing the three-point battle
Since Mazzulla took charge of the roster, how many times have you checked the box score and saw the opposing team got more three-point shots up than the Celtics did? According to Taylor Snow, the last time the Celtics had a negative 3-point disparity and won a game was way back in March 2021 in a win over the Houston Rockets.
The Celtics still won tonight despite 13 fewer 3-point attempts than Memphis.
First time they’ve won with such a negative 3PA differential since 3/14/21 at Houston.
— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) November 20, 2023
The Celtics are redefining their offensive identity. They’re no longer the roster that jacks up threes and hopes the basketball Gods are on their side. They’re creating scoring opportunities across the floor and embracing the physicality that comes with more mid-range and rim-attempts.
Their ability to generate interior offense is a large part of why Boston was able to grind out a win despite some rough shooting from Brown, Porzingis, and Jrue Holiday — the same way they survived a 1-for-11 night from Tatum against the Philadelphia 76ers.
#4 Mazzulla pulling the Jays and Holiday
We often talk about a player’s growth. We focus on their improvements, be it offensively, defensively, or cognitively. Yet, we rarely discuss the aspects in which a coach has improved. Sure, we say they’re better than previous years, but seldom explore why they’re better.
For Mazzulla, it would appear he’s just more comfortable in his role. Maybe it’s having a year under his belt. Maybe it’s having his own staff on the bench next to him. Or maybe it’s his Brazilian JiuJitsu training paying off. Whatever it is, we saw another evolution in his approach on Sunday night.
With the Celtics struggling for energy and impact, Mazzulla boldly decided to pull Tatum, Brown, and Jrue Holiday out of the game with approximately 7 minutes remaining in the third.
“I didn’t think we were playing very well, so I wanted to find a lineup that could kind of go on a run for us,” Mazzulla said. “First night of a back-to-back, so I didn’t want the minutes to be too high. …I thought it was an opportunity to find a better rhythm, find a better lineup, and look to go on a little bit of a run there.”
In order to lead a team to a championship, you’ve got to be willing to make tough calls. You have to lead by example. This further proves that Mazzulla is evolving as a coach, and I’m here for it.
#5 Gettin’ nerdy with it: Cut creation
I’ll be honest, this is a term I use, not something I’ve seen discussed when watching coaching clinics on YouTube or reading X’s and O’s breakdowns on the interweb. Yet, I think it’s an important aspect of an offense, especially when it’s getting bogged down in the halfcourt.
Put simply, if a cut leads to an alteration in the defense and a scoring opportunity is generated because of that, I define it as cut creation. I kind of lump cut and roll creation together, too. Here are two examples from the Grizzlies game.
Here, Al Horford creates a scoring opportunity for Payton Pritchard. The corner spacing is a little janky, to begin with. Horford cuts and drags Bismack Biyombo with him, which creates an open driving lane for Pritchard to attack off the dribble. It helps that Pritchard’s defender is playing the driving lane for Tatum and is a step away from Pritchard as he takes his first step, which gives him the advantage of getting his hips ahead of his defender.
In this play, Neemias Queta creates offense via a slip screen. His roll to the rim draws three defenders’ attention, including Desmond Bane, who was guarding Sam Hauser on the weakside corner. Suddenly, a scoring opportunity arises, and Hauser drains another three for the Celtics.
#6 Missed communication
With how much success this Celtics team has enjoyed to begin the season, it’s easy to forget that they’re still gelling as a unit. There are multiple new players, and even the ones who have been together for a couple of years are getting accustomed to a new system and new roles within that system.
Against the Grizzlies, there were a few plays where it was clear communication had been lost in translation. Yet, the below clip is the one that stood out to me the most.
In the above clip, you can see Brown point to where he wants Hauser to set a screen on the left side of his defender. Hauser flows into a ghost screen instead, leading both players to kind of run into each other as Brown looks to create separation off what should have been a Hauser-initiated pick-and-roll.
Hauser may have seen Brown’s gesture and read it as “ghost screen to get here” or a million different other interpretations. Nothing to worry about at all, but it’s an observation I’ve been making recently on the occasional play, and wanted to highlight it as something to watch.
These things will undoubtedly figure themselves out over the course of the season.
#7 Need to tighten up the passing
17. That’s how many turnovers the Celtics had on the night. Some of the turnovers were courtesy of Memphis’ pressure defense. Some were trying to get too clever with a pass. And others were just bad reads.
Tatum will probably get cooked for the below pass — and while I agree there were better ways to execute it, I’m a big proponent of basketball and, specifically, the NBA being an entertainment industry. So, I’m personally ok with it.
For me, it’s the turnovers that come from charging into traffic that grinds my gears. You know the defense is going to collapse. You know you’re probably going to pick the ball up. If the offense isn’t set, use an escape dribble and flow into an action.
There are 19 seconds on the shot clock when White drives. Hauser is sinking into the weakside corner but isn’t set. And the rest of the Celtics are trailing the play. I understand the upside of early offense but show some patience and trust in the team’s offensive principles when it isn’t there.
#8 Eight Turnovers for Tatum
Talking of turnovers, Tatum finished the game with 8. That’s almost half of the team’s total. As a primary ball-handler with a significant portion of the team’s creation on his shoulders, Tatum will always be prone to leading the turnover charts. It comes with the territory. Still, he needs to tighten things up, especially when playing against a pressure defense.
In fairness, 4 of his 8 turnovers came via offensive fouls.
I’m not mad at an aggressive Tatum. Not in the slightest. But still, 8 turnovers…
#9 Gettin’ nerdy with it: Slice Pop
Quick little action from Al Horford here. Sets a slice screen for Jayson Tatum on the wing and then pops to the perimeter for a catch-and-shoot three.
Tatum’s cut off the screen draws three defenders, allowing Horford enough space and time to get into his shooting motion and nail the three. Love the design here and how it is built around playing off of Tatum’s scoring gravity.
#10 Losing a battle they usually win
Not only did the Celtics take fewer threes than the Grizzlies, they lost the second-chance point battle. Boston came into the game against Memphis ranked 3rd in the NBA for limiting opponents scoring on second-chance buckets. They were behind the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic.
The Celtics gave up 21 second-chance points against Memphis, causing them to fall to fifth in the NBA. Boston’s ability to limit second-chance scoring opportunities has been a big part of their defensive identity to begin the season. Hopefully, we don’t begin to see a slippage in their second efforts, and this was just one of those games where they got out-hustled by a young team without multiple members of their starting rotation.
There’s no rest for the wicked. The Celtics will play again tonight when they face the Charlotte Hornets on the second night of their back-to-back. Personally, I have this down as a trap game. Charlotte has struggled to begin the season, but with the travel and physicality of the Grizzlies game, this one could be tough. Hoping to wake up tomorrow (being in the UK, I watch games the following morning) to a blow-out!