#1 The defense deserves a lot of credit
After a win like that, it’s only logical that the Boston Celtics offense gets a ton of credit. However, this win over the Miami Heat was built on an early defensive foundation. Boston played a stringent brand of defense from the opening tip and quickly stifled Miami’s struggling offense in the first quarter.
The Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis aren’t confined to the offensive end. Both played a key role in the defensive possession above. They contained the pick-and-roll, protected the rim, pressured ball-handlers, and affected the shot release. It wasn’t a major defensive stop, but it was indicative of what the Heat were going to face throughout the night.
We saw a similar brand of defense in this play, too. Credit to Payton Pritchard, he hounded his man and adopted a high pick-up point. Boston rotated and switched with purpose. They protected the middle of the court by angling ball-handlers away from straight-line drives.
The Heat struggle to create an advantage leading to a tightly-contested three with seconds remaining on the clock.
Here’s another example. This time, the Heat look to run some actions. Miami starts with a “Zipper cut” followed by a screen-the-screener action between Terry Rozier and Duncan Robinson. Rather than switching these actions, the Celtics looked to play straight-up man-to-man defense. As such, the Heat couldn’t generate the mismatches they were hunting for.
Once again, credit to Pritchard for how he guarded the pick-and-roll on the third action of the game, containing his man and forcing the ball out of their hands. That’s three separate actions the Heat went to, none of which got them any close to creating a scoring opportunity.
From there, it’s a corner three, with Luke Kornet contesting the shot with 1.5 seconds remaining on the release. Clank. Another miss.
We can praise Boston’s offense all day, but the defensive execution, especially during the early stages of the game, deserves the credit, too.
#2 It’s a make-or-miss league. Boston didn’t miss much.
Ok, we’ve given the defensive execution its flowers. Now, let’s look at the offense. There won’t be a “gettin’ nerdy with it” segment today, primarily because the Celtics didn’t need to go deep into their playbook.
Instead, they stuck with their basic early offense principles and looked to create space via screening, drive and kick, or by pushing the tempo in transition.
Boston went 51-of-80 from the field, shooting 63.7%. They went 22-of-40 from the deep, a 55% conversion rate. Sometimes, shots just fall. There’s no science or explanation. Teams have the occasional game where everybody is cooking, and the basket looks like it’s a mile wide. Against Miami, that night was one of those nights.
We can also point toward Boston going 19-of-20 from the free-throw line. Everything the Celtics looked to do seemed to go perfectly. Part of that was due to the Heat’s questionable effort on defense, the other part was due to the Celtics confidence and commitment to making the right read on every play.
#3 KP is a difference-maker
Porzingis is what Boston has been missing. I think we can all agree on that. He provides additional spacing around the perimeter. Can attack the post. Can attack close-outs off the dribble. Can hit mid-range jumpers over the top of most defenders. And can protect the rim.
Against the Heat, Porzingis was one of the genuine difference makers. This season, he’s shooting 35.9% from three. Against Miami, he went 3-of-4 from deep. Three of those shots came in the first quarter, with him making two of them.
Here, the Celtics go to what’s known as a “quick” action, which is also called a “wide” action. That action gets Tatum the ball on the perimeter. Porzingis flows into a high pick-and-pop, Tatum drags his dribble and draws two defenders, then, the big man drains the open three.
In essence, the way this play went is exactly how the Celtics want their screening actions on the perimeter to work. There are too many scoring options available to the Celtics.
However, Porzingis’ mid-range ability is also key.
That’s a 7’3’’ big man faking the shot, getting his defender to plant their feet, and then driving the close-out to get to his spot around the elbow. Then, we have the pull-up. At Porzingis’ height, it’s got to be tough trying to affect his shot.
We can’t forget about his ability to pass out of the roll or short-roll, too.
Everything Porzingis brings to the table helps elevate how the Celtics want to play. He is a genuine X-factor and eliminates Boston’s susceptibility to being contained via a zone defense or an aggressive trapping defense on the perimeter.
#4 KP injury
Porzingis went down with an ankle sprain in the third quarter. Fortunately, Porzingis was able to return to the bench in the fourth quarter. Hopefully, any lingering effects of the injury won’t keep him sidelined too long. A silver lining is that the All-Star break is quickly closing in, which should give the veteran big man some additional time to recover and rehab from his setback.
#5 Tatum getting to the line
We’ve heard a lot of pushback on Tatum’s ascension toward the top of the NBA in recent years. One of the more recent criticisms has been his inability to get to the foul line. There is a vocal subset of fans who believe that the issue is partly on the game officials allowing a significant amount of contact against the St. Louis native.
However, on the night when his fifth consecutive All-Star selection was announced, Tatum got the star whistle. He led the game in free-throw attempts, shooting 10 of them. He hit 9 of those 10 shots.
This season, we’ve seen an increase in Tatum’s willingness to drive the lane and work out of the low block. The more he’s rewarded with a legitimate whistle on contact, the more of an interior threat he’s going to become.
When you add that type of threat to his already dangerous perimeter and long mid-range game and factor in his playmaking and rebounding, it’s hard to pinpoint easy ways to get stops against him, especially when he’s going to his step-back game from his spots in the post and using slight contact to generate his space.
#6 Brown can look unstoppable sometimes
It’s no wonder both of the Celtics star wings had impressive performances in a game where everything was going right. Brown mixed his shot attempts well. Yet, for a player who has been thriving when getting downhill and leaning into his athleticism, his three-point game stood out against Miami.
When he’s hitting these kinds of shots and poses the threat of blowing by you or out-muscling you on the drive, Brown can look unstoppable. His overall offensive game has evolved this season. He’s embracing his role as the featured scorer on the roster and is clearly playing with extreme confidence right now.
This is the kind of play you see from a player that’s locked in and enjoying their basketball. I’ve said it consistently throughout this season: Brown is playing his best basketball, and it’s happening on both sides of the court.
#7 Kornet’s bench production
For all the talk of potentially needing an upgrade at the backup big man position, Luke Kornet continues to remind us that he is more than capable of anchoring his role. He came off the bench against the Heat to provide versatile defense and a scoring punch around the rim.
When everything is clicking, Kornet is a fun character to root for. He plays with a smile. He made the right decisions. And he operates in an understated team-first style. Three of Kornet’s made buckets were via lob plays, which, again, leans into the fun aspect of his presence within the rotation.
This possession is probably my favorite lon of the game for Kornet. Not because it’s spectacular or highlights a development in a player’s passing game but because it shows Kornet’s timing. He times his cut, jumps at the right moment, and doesn’t let the flyby contest impact his approach.
I like Kornet as the third big. I think he defends well. He contains pick-and-roll ball handlers well. And he can pop off for a quick ten points when rolling to the rim or fighting for offensive rebounds. We got another reminder of all those things during Boston’s win over the Heat.
#8 Hauser showing more than perimeter shooting
Slowly but surely, we’re starting to see new aspects of Sam Hauser on offense. Earlier in the season, we were all enjoying his run of games with a dunk. Then, there have been moments where he’s attacked closeouts with baseline drives, either redirecting the rock or exploring different ways to score in those scenarios.
Hauser is a shooter. That’s what he does. He’s arguably one of the best movement shooters in the NBA. Have him flowing off a flare screen or curling over a stagger action as part of a floppy set — if you get him the ball in space, he’s good value to knock down his open looks.
However, against the Heat, we saw him flash some upside as a cutter. It was only one play. There will be plenty of development needed if he’s going to add some interior movement scoring to his game, but it was encouraging, nevertheless.
Here, the Celtics go to a weakside stagger screen. The idea is to get Hauser curling over both screens, catching the ball on the move and letting it fly from above the break. Hauser had different ideas, though.
Instead, the third-year forward fakes the cut and then rejects the screen, cutting toward the rim via the middle of the floor. Some help defense gives him a tougher shot than you would like, but Hauser hits a smooth little fade away within a couple of feet of the bucket.
Again, this is just one possession. But seeing little flashes of a deeper offensive game is encouraging. His remit might be to score, but the best scorers have counters in their back pocket, just in case the defense sniffs out what you’re trying to do. Hauser is developing those counters in front of our eyes.
#9 Pritchard is learning how to create space off of contact
Another bench player. Pritchard has been solid over the past few months. His shot is falling, he’s embracing dribble penetration, and once again, he’s showcasing his value as an inverted screener.
However, it’s his sudden willingness to create separation via contact that has been catching my eye. Against the Heat, Pritchard once again flashed a willingness to bump his man before using the momentum to push him into some additional space.
Watch how Pritchard drops his shoulder when driving from the wing, how he allows himself to (maybe a push) push-off of Robinson to halt his momentum and give him a stop-and-pop jumper from close range.
We see a similar approach on this jumper. Once again, Pritchard threatens the drive before getting low, creating some slight contact and stepping back into space.
Pritchard’s speed, shiftiness and handle are all legitimate weapons. He’s been leaning into those during his recent run of good bench production. Couple that with his hounding on defense — as we saw above — and he’s proving he can be the bench guard Boston needs during the postseason. Leaning into that physicality against the Heat is also a sign I enjoyed seeing.
#10 A half-empty stadium
I’ll keep this short. I was very shocked to see the Heat’s stadium with so many empty seats. A matchup between Boston and Miami is one of the better matchups the Eastern Conference has to offer. Granted, the game was on a random Thursday at the end of January, and tickets don’t come cheap. Still, it stood out to me. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of how the TD Garden looks on TV and how it always appears to be sold out.
The Celtics are back at it on Saturday when they face the LA Clippers at the TD Garden. It’s always fun seeing these two teams go at it. I like the way these two teams match up. I also like the idea of Boston adding another win to their home record. So, I’m very hopeful I will be writing another takeaways article based around a win. Either way, I’ll be back here on Sunday morning to dive into what we see and, hopefully, what we learn.
Until then, enjoy your weekend, everybody!