The Boston Celtics finished their preseason Thursday night by dominating the Charlotte Hornets 127-99.
Though Al Horford received a night of rest, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla played mostly regulars into the third quarter before turning the game over to the end of the bench. Jaylen Brown scored 20 points. Neemias Queta impressed with 12 points and seven rebounds off the bench. While moving to 4-1 for the preseason, the Celtics held Charlotte to 31.9 percent shooting in the first half and forced 24 Hornets turnovers in the game.
But the preseason isn’t necessarily about results. It’s about building the right habits. It’s about setting the foundation for a successful regular season and playoff run. For the Celtics, it was a chance to start developing chemistry after an offseason of significant changes.
They have enough individual talent to score off that alone, but their roster overhaul will ultimately be judged by how well the pieces fit together. Will Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday help the team find solutions when it matters most? Nobody could possibly answer that question yet, but the preseason offered the first clues of how the new-look Celtics will mesh. While all the normal caveats about preseason basketball are relevant, the earliest glimpses of the team showed off some instant synergy. Here are some illustrations of how the Celtics’ core players began to show how they will accentuate each other throughout the preseason.
1. The quick screen for Porziņģis
Teams need to fear Jayson Tatum at all times. When he appeared to start cutting to the basket here, Hornets big man Mark Williams was clearly most concerned with taking that option away. He sagged off his own man, Porziņģis, to try cutting off Tatum’s path to the hoop.
The problem: Tatum wasn’t actually headed to the rim. Seeing how Williams was playing the action, Tatum set a screen for Porziņģis instead. With so much attention on Tatum, the Hornets left themselves with no chance to close out to Porziņģis in time. He only needed to turn toward the basketball to take advantage of what was essentially a practice jump shot. Tatum didn’t receive any sort of traditional stat on the play, but his read freed Porziņģis here.
With plays like this in mind, Porziņģis has emphasized how the other Celtics players simplify things for him.
“Obviously it’s just easy to play with those guys,” Porzingis said earlier this week. “I keep repeating myself, but they draw so much attention that I get wide-open 3s, wide-open looks, and they find me and I just shoot those shots. It’s really simple.”
At least it is on this play.
2. Holiday in the post
On the first play of Tuesday night’s win against the Knicks, the Celtics dialed up a post-up opportunity for Jrue Holiday against defender Donte DiVincenzo. By getting great position near the rim, Holiday put the Knicks in a brutal predicament. They could leave DiVincenzo alone in a tough matchup against Holiday. Or they could leave one of Boston’s many quality shooters open.
The Knicks chose the latter option. Upon Tatum’s pass to Holiday, Mitchell Robinson shaded off of Porziņģis. Holiday quickly found his teammate in the corner. Porziņģis didn’t have an easy look, but that didn’t stop him. He created enough space to fire a 3-pointer over the top of Robinson, who’s probably not used to guarding centers with that type of skill set.
Though the Celtics also had a lot of shooting last season, Porziņģis gives them a new element at the center position. He’s not just more threatening from all over the court, but also more difficult to close out against. He can shoot over the top of most contests, even those from opposing centers.
Robinson actually guarded him pretty well here, but it just didn’t matter. And Holiday’s ability to thrive in the low post kicked off the sequence. It’s tough to guard a team with guards who can post up and centers who can let it fly from anywhere. The Celtics have versatile players all over the court.
3. Tatum’s roll frees up Porziņģis
The aforementioned versatility allows the Celtics to do some fun things. On this play, they used Tatum as the roll man while Porziņģis spaced the court on the opposite wing.
With Brown and Porziņģis on the weak side, the Knicks seemed to want to avoid providing much help. Even though Tatum was the one rolling, Robinson seemed to be hesitant about whether to slide over to stop the All-NBA forward from getting to the rim. Robinson seemed worried about leaving Porziņģis – and he was right to be. As soon as Robinson took a step into the paint, Holiday threw a crosscourt pass to Porziņģis for a clean 3-point attempt. Though he missed it, the Celtics will live with that type of process on any possession. The combination of Tatum’s gravity and Holiday’s passing produced a wide-open look for a great shooter.
The Celtics were so pleased with the shot attempt that they ran a similar action on the next possession.
The second time around, the Knicks defended it differently. Their decision to switch took pressure off Robinson on the weak side but left Tatum with a mismatch against DiVincenzo. Holiday commited a turnover before the Celtics could find Tatum on the block against the smaller defender, but, again, it is easy to see that Boston should have solutions against a wide array of defensive strategies. The Celtics need to execute better to actually find Tatum but are on the same page about the answer they want to reach.
4. Double on Tatum, but Celtics react
The Celtics acquired Holiday at the beginning of this month. He missed the start of training camp while the trade was being finalized. He has barely had any time to learn his new teammates’ games.
He still knew where to position himself when the Knicks double-teamed Tatum on the final possession of the third quarter Tuesday night. And once Holiday got the ball, he immediately found someone else for an open 3-point attempt. The Celtics didn’t end up scoring on the play, but the high-IQ sequence still produced a great Horford look.
The double-team here was actually a bit unconventional. Instead of sending the closest guy to Tatum as the second defender, the Knicks sent Isaiah Hartenstein off Horford in the corner. At that point, Holiday essentially turned into a tight end looking for a crease against zone coverage. He made himself available for a Tatum pass. When it came, Holiday didn’t hesitate at all. He fired a touch pass immediately to Horford in the corner. Holiday probably hasn’t practiced similar situations with the Celtics much, but he relied on his smarts to play off Tatum like he’s been doing it for years.
5. Brown’s back screen creates Porziņģis layup
The best scorers often make the best screeners. Why? Because the defense needs to sell out to stop them from touching the ball.
Here, Gordon Hayward knew he couldn’t leave Brown for long. After just a step toward the cutting Porzingis, Hayward retreated to Brown to make sure he didn’t pop open for an easy 3-point shot. That left Williams in a difficult position while he navigated the down screen. He was unable to recover in time to keep Porziņģis from finishing off a nice pass from Holiday.
Rewinding a bit, Williams would probably be less aggressive defending on the perimeter against most big men. But against Porziņģis, the Hornets center started to hug up as soon as the ball is one pass away. Even after spotting the screen coming, Williams needed to worry about a trailing 3-point attempt. He was on alert, leaving him more susceptible to Brown’s back screen.
Boston will face far greater challenges in the future. Preseason games can only show so much, but the Celtics’ play throughout the exhibition schedule demonstrated the promise of the new pieces and their fit.
(Photo of Boston’s Jrue Holiday driving against Charlotte’s JT Thor, left, and Mark Williams: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)