Jrue Holiday did something simple, yet surprising. In the middle of the first quarter, he came down the court and crossed over into a double screen from his new teammates. Kristaps Porziņģis went one way and Derrick White soon followed, leaving Holiday a ton of room to waltz into the lane.
In the past, a Boston Celtics point guard may try to take a floater or get creative creating an opening for a shot. But Holiday just kept steaming ahead, dropping it in with his left hand like it was still a pregame layup line. A few minutes earlier, he hit a textbook catch-and-shoot midranger from the baseline like Kyrie Irving used to do. A bunch of slightly difficult, but gettable shots that he can hit reliably.
That’s the hope with Holiday, that he can convert straightforward, effective plays on a regular basis to give the Celtics offense a moderate but crucial upgrade. For now, he looks like he’s trying to make quick, smart reads and just fit in. You can see it in how much more in control White appears, who needed a full offseason to truly fulfill his potential in this system. Holiday is finding his footing, but he looks like the ideal complement to what the Celtics have been building around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Yet even with their two scoring dynamos sitting for the Celtics’ 112-101 win against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, the offense still looked good. Holiday and White were comfortable orchestrating, but it was the players who will be subbing in this season who are standing out. Payton Pritchard has been playing like his new extension was an underpay, while Sam Hauser was the real standout in Philly.
At the seven-minute mark of the first quarter, Hauser had to step up on to the ball, then rotate over to his own man, then chase over to the corner to make De’Anthony Melton drive into traffic. White was ready to get yet another block, but Hauser just stripped the shot from behind instead to set up a Holiday transition 3 on the other end.
Hauser earned minutes last year by holding up as offenses would pull him out onto an island and go at him. But this was Hauser being an active switcher in a fast-moving defensive possession. This is the next level, going from a young prospect surviving to a rotation player playing at game speed.
Then on the other end, he’s doing more than hitting spot-up 3s. His rhythm turning his hips into shots on the move is more crisp and steady. His passing vision on handoffs with Al Horford or attacking closeouts means he doesn’t have to be a dead end to a possession anymore. He’s more intimately involved and playing with purpose. He finished with 15 points on 4-for-9 shooting with three assists.
Considering Svi Mykhailiuk looks like he is earning a rotation spot with the way he is shooting and passing, Hauser has to show something real.
So far, so good.
Dive or sit
Joe Mazzulla wanted to give his bench guys an opportunity. His preseason roster is full of veterans on non-guaranteed deals, players whose games are well-understood and clearly don’t have much time left to prove they belong in the league. A new crop of players enters the league every year and even if you can play, you don’t have much time to prove you deserve a roster spot before the league moves on.
Dalano Banton has been trying to stick and he’s gotten close a few times. His career trajectory has been far from linear, but the Celtics have a need for a ballhandler with size that can defend multiple positions. But he’s gotta fit the culture.
And as Mazzulla sat his starters for the second half, Banton had a chance. But then a rebound fell to his feet after the first play, he swiped at it, but never hit the deck. P.J. Tucker — one of the great hustlers of this era — showed him how it’s done.
The play in question and ensuing “ripping of a new one” https://t.co/Mx5HFOLqCP pic.twitter.com/PTTjVBuMIt
— Jack Simone (@JackSimoneNBA) October 12, 2023
Thirty-four seconds into the half, Banton joined the starters back on the bench, with Mazzulla lighting into him.
“Listen, there’s nothing more important than holding people to a high standard, especially when you believe in them and know they can be really, really good,” Mazzulla told reporters in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
It’s kind of a golden rule that you dive for a loose ball and secure possession. That’s something the Celtics organization and fans have treasured forever. Loose balls were why Tommy Points were invented. Marcus Smart dove for balls that weren’t even loose with his Cobra Strikes. Sure, one swipe at the ball without hitting the deck is fine, and that’s what Tucker did too. But once you miss and the ball is sitting there, you better taste hardwood and lock that ball into your chest.
“Everybody on the roster competes at a high level and understands that taking pride in defense is number one,” Mazzulla told reporters in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
The irony is that Mazzulla praised Banton’s defensive rebounding when the team was in New York on Monday.
“He does a great job getting deflections, does a great job rebounding out of his area, does a good job crashing, and he really understands the game,” Mazzulla told reporters in New York. “I think he’s a really smart player.”
So while Mazzulla said he thought Banton could have gotten the ball, he praised Banton for responding, “really, really well.” He said he loved Banton’s mentality and he was thankful Banton let him coach the third-year guard. Mazzulla put his foot down and told Banton — and really everyone on the team — that they can either play hard or watch from the sidelines.
He got the exact response he wanted, as Banton checked back into the game late in the third quarter and was the player Mazzulla was looking for. Banton was sprinting into screens, crashing the glass on both ends and trying to outrun everyone in transition. He was playing like he got benched out of nowhere and had his coach curse him out.
Mazzulla has made it clear he doesn’t mind if you miss shots or give up a bucket. It’s all about whether you’re playing with the intensity and awareness he demands of himself and everyone else. Banton learned the hard way, but he learned and his coach was proud. He just can’t forget this lesson, because the preseason is more than halfway over and the Celtics have some work to do to whittle down the roster.
(Photo of Jrue Holiday: Kyle Ross / USA Today)