A bounce-back win over the Atlanta Hawks has got the Boston Celtics back into the win column. Boston was missing Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzignis, yet still found a way to win. Most impressively, they rode out tough stretches where the Hawks were on fire from deep.
We also saw an increase in ball movement and some dominant performances on both sides of the court. Let’s dive right in.
#1 Horford’s dominant rebounding
Al Horford just continues to find ways to help this team. One game, he’s knocking down his catch-and-shoot threes to boost the offense, the next, he’s a short-roll creator. Against the Hawks, Horford became prime Wilt Chamberlain (yes, it’s hyperbole) on the glass, gobbling up 15 rebounds, with 12 of them on the defensive end.
Clint Capela was seen as the prototypical rim-runner during his prime. He’s still a physical presence around the rim, too. Yet, Horford’s ability to cut off angles and control his space allowed him to ensure the Celtics owned their defensive glass.
It also helps that Jayson Tatum has developed into a high-level rebounder. As his 9 boards and Jaylen Brown’s 7 ensured, the Celtics controlled the temp of the game after defensive stops.
#2 Jaylen Brown is becoming an all-around producer
“I think I’m a better basketball player than I’ve been in recent years,” Brown told the media after the game. “I’ve been able to see things and make plays for others. Tonight was an example: a lot of hockey assists a lot of getting the ball to the right places. Have a good flow. Have a good offense. Me, it’s also about maintaining that balance of when to make those plays and when to be that killer, be aggressive when I need to. I’m still figuring out that balance.”
Jaylen Brown says he thinks he’s a better basketball player than he was in previous years, focused on making the right pass while balancing that with being aggressive. Was surprised the team’s assist rate is down, says he feels ball movement has been better. pic.twitter.com/uCW3ifjcxK
— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) November 27, 2023
To begin the season, it felt like Brown was being used as a primary scorer. His role is projected to be a cutter, slasher, and spot-up finisher. Yet, in recent games, he’s embraced a more complete role. He’s using his gravity to create easy reads off the dribble, and he’s rebounding, shutting down screening actions on defense, and getting to his spots on offense.
Take this play for example. Brown shows great patience in both the first and secondary actions. On the initial pick-and-roll, Atlanta looks to blitz by sending two at Brown. Rather than looking to force the issue he passes to Payton Pritchard and looks to reset the play.
Once Brown receives the ball back, he drives into the teeth of the defense but keeps his speed and body under control. Four defenders collapse in an attempt to take away the rim. Brown reads the defense, goes into a shooting motion to threaten a lay-up, and kicks it out to Sam Hauser in the corner for a three.
Those types of plays never used to present themself to Brown. He would either get flustered by the blitz, turn it over on the drive, or force the issue on the layup. His game is evolving, and the spacing on the court is helping showcase that.
#3 Derrick White’s ball movement
Similar to Horford, Derrick White just finds ways to impact the game. He can scale his production based on the team’s needs. With Holiday and Porzingis out, White turned into a playmaking savant, dishing out 11 assists for his teammates while keeping his turnovers down (he had 3.)
What I liked about White’s performance was that all his assists were easy. Most of them came via “next pass” basketball, where he was a pivot point in a play that consistently found the open man. Even this dime to Tatum on the post was a “next pass” play and ended up in a bucket.
This season, White has been Boston’s Swiss army knife at the guard position. Last night, it was operating a playmaker; later this week it could be hitting catch-and-shoot threes or pressuring the rim. Whatever the Celtics need, White keeps finding ways to come up with the goods.
#4 Atlanta’s pick-and-roll defense
Atlanta stuck to two primary pick-and-roll principles for the most part. They blitzed on Tatum and Brown, and they showed with everybody else. Both types of coverage involve sending two at the ball-handler after the screen has taken place. One keeps two on the ball; the other sends one of the defenders back to recover to his man after a few steps have been taken.
The Celtics carved open that defense time and time again.
The above clip was Boston’s first offensive possession of the game. The Celtics run a Horford/White pick-and-roll. Atlanta go to their show coverage. The show allows Horford to get into the paint unchecked. Capela has to recover after White gets off the ball.
When Tatum receives the pass from White, the defense has to shift, leaving the entry pass wide open. Horford gets the easy bucket. Everything the Celtics did in the above possession came after the Hawks committed to the show and were slow to recover.
The Hawks look to blitz the DHO between Brown and Luke Kornet in this clip. Kornet relocates to the nail and acts as a pivot point. Atlanta’s defense has shifted over and is watching the strong side, leaving space for the ball to swing around on the weak side and force close-outs.
Brown hits Kornet, the big man swings the rock to White, who goes into a “next pass” mentality, swings it to Hauser, and boom, an easy three. Atlanta committed two to the ball, and Boston countered with a quick passing moment to get an open shot on the second-side action.
#5 Gettin’ nerdy with it: Finding counters
Talking of counters. One of my biggest issues with the Celtics offense in recent games has been their lack of a plan B. Too often, the Celtics have looked devoid of answers when the defense shuts down their initial action. So, as you can imagine, I was pleased when the Celtics began to counter the Hawks’ defense, both in the pick-and-roll and on the perimeter.
In the above clip, the Hawks do a good job of shutting down the initial pick-and-roll — once again via show defense. The ball finds its way into a second-side action. Some solid defense forces a few passes that lead nowhere. So, Payton Pritchard initiates a “Zoom” action on the strong side, getting Sam Hauser onto the ball and curling off a DHO. The Hawks show onto Hauser, leaving Pritchard in space. A quick pass out of the temporary double leaves Pritchard open for the three.
Counters like this are essential when the defense is swarming. Especially for second-unit players who are trying to create some rhythm for themselves and the team.
#6 Sam Hasuer’s movement
Sticking with Sam Hauser for a moment. Can we just appreciate how good he’s gotten at reading when to lift and sink in and out of the corners to make himself available for passes?
#7 Turnover issues
For the most part, the Celtics took care of the rock. They ended the game with 12 turnovers compared to 24 assists in a pass-heavy system. However, there were moments when sloppy play took over. Tatum was a primary culprit with 6 turnovers. However, we have to rationalize that he has the ball more than everyone else and faces the most defensive attention.
Still, 6 turnovers are too much. White had 3, Brown had 2, Banton and Kornet had 1 a piece. It’s not the end of the world, but stretches like in the fourth quarter, where Boston had five turnovers, can swing the momentum of a game. They just need to stay locked in, and not let the defense rattle their cages.
#8 Queta brings the hustle
Neemias Queta is fun! He brings size, physicality, and energy off the bench. In Kristaps Porzingis’ absence, Queta was injected into the bench unit, and made a reasonable impact when on the floor. He ended the game with 7 points, 10 rebounds, and an assist, and created problems for the Hawks on both sides of the court.
Persoanlly, the below play stood out to me due to his energy and effort.
Two off-ball screens (a slice and a wide pin-down) to begin the offensive possession show Queta’s activity level and hustle. He then slips into a post-up and calls for the rock. A little bit of disjointed play ends in a well-earned bucket.
We also saw Queta step onto the perimeter and guard Dejounte Murray. Not that matchup anybody would have envisioned or wanted to see, but he did well, given the mismatch.
Queta does well to stick with his man here. Cuts off the first drive before giving up his lead hip for the second. Horford rotates over and gets the steal of the season with a move straight out of NBA Street — I’m showing my age with that reference.
#9 Jayson Tatum does Jayson Tatum things
I think the title of this one says it all. Tatum was Tatumming all over the place. What I liked most was that most of Tatum’s three-point shots were coming off the catch. Why did I like that? Because on the season, he’s shooting 45.9% from deep in catch-and-shoot possession but just 32.7% when pulling up off the dribble.
Tatum has been a better catch-and-shoot perimeter threat for multiple seasons at this point. If he’s using his dribble to create space for drives or to generate passing opportunities is when he’s a handful for opposing defenses; if he’s trying to create shots from deep, the defense has won.
Of course, we also got a healthy dose of post-play, which has become the norm and is a welcomed addition. And do they get any prettier than this?
Tatum also balled out on defense and was a creative force despite the Hawks looking to blitz on every screen. Overall, it was a solid bounce-back game for him after a tough showing against the Magic. Hopefully, the flu symptoms he’s been dealing with are a thing of the past.
#10 Atlanta’s defense is bad
Atlanta’s defense is incredibly disjointed. They rank 24th in the NBA, and they need to iron out some bad habits. The worst habit on show is how they totally lose track of their man. A key defensive principle is “see ball, see man,” yet the Hawks only focus on the first part of that mantra.
As we’ve seen in some of the clips above, the Hawks can become hyperfocused on the ball-dominant side and tend to open themselves up to back-cuts or weak-side screening actions.
Above is a good example of how only “seeing ball” can leave you susceptible to getting cooked via cuts. I’m not complaining, of course. But it’s worth pointing out so we can appreciate the Celtics’ high-level defense that little bit more.
We’re back to in-season tournament play now. The Celtics will face the Chicago Bulls in their final group game and will need things to go their way if they want to make it into the knockout stages.
Chris Forsberg broke down the different scenarios in a recent post on X (formerly known as Twitter.)
I’m a big fan of the tournament and the increased level of play we’re seeing because of it. Still, I would like the Celtics to continue participating in said tournament, which means I, like most of you, will be on the edge of my seat when I wake up on Wednesday and watch the game back!