NEW YORK — Even Wyc Grousbeck knew there needed to be a change.
The Boston Celtics governor said in an interview with WEEI this week that he started to think about making changes to the team during Game 7 of the conference finals and told Joe Mazzulla and Brad Stevens 48 hours later that they were not bringing back the same team. He knew the offense needed more answers during the toughest moments.
Mazzulla learned a lot in his first season, but one of the vital lessons was how to evolve the offense. He devised a system that was ideal in theory, trying to generate drive and kicks to create open 3s.
When it worked, the Celtics got better shot quality than anyone in the league. But even when they got the opportunities they wanted, they had some bitterly cold nights when they mattered most. Then in crunchtime, the defense would tighten up, those driving lanes would shrink, then Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would try to create something out of nothing.
There needed to be some variety. It was something Ime Udoka talked about when the Celtics lost the NBA Finals to a brilliant defense. Once Mazzulla went through the ringer of a postseason run, he saw it too.
So they blew things up, trading away some of the team’s most beloved players, the guys who epitomized the kind of toughness and hustle this team wanted to embrace. In came Kristaps Porziņģis, someone who has always excelled on paper but hasn’t led a winner. They followed it up with Jrue Holiday, who you simply need to watch to understand the breadth of his impact.
It was all in an effort to not only build a more star-studded cast that can’t be denied in the biggest minutes of the game but to give the team more options. To let the players know that they can clean up after their mistakes and not have to swing for the fences to get back into games.
And things started out so easily, with Porziņģis scoring in just about every way possible in his 15-point first quarter Wednesday against the New York Knicks. But then he disappeared, not hitting another shot until the end of the third. Then in the final six minutes of the game, he subtly took over in the simple way the Celtics have been dreaming of.
It was as easy as putting him and one of the Jays in the high pick-and-roll, then letting the defense decide what happens next. The Knicks decided to abandon him and blitz the ball, giving him wide-open 3s. The one he buried with 90 seconds left finally gave the Celtics back a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, starting off the season with a 108-104 win.
KRISTAPS PORZINGIS WITH A HUGE THREE
Stream: https://t.co/QynkWWBPgj pic.twitter.com/S1gbCfBcve
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) October 26, 2023
“It’s important to show what my mindset is in tight games like this and probably showing them that I’ll be there,” Porziņģis said. “I’ll be there and do what I can on both ends. I think today was a good step for us to build that trust.”
The Celtics needed something easy they could get to that would take the pressure off their best players, and it worked to bring home an ugly win.
“He just makes us that much more dynamic, obviously, with his size, ability to shoot, make plays off the dribble,” Tatum said. “When they double me late, make the right play, find an open man. Obviously, he can shoot from wherever. I mean, he’s really good. He’s really, really good. We’re lucky to have him.”
After a dominant preseason, things couldn’t have started out better. There was one moment in the first quarter when Porziņģis looked to be in trouble. It was just him and Mitchell Robinson all alone in the corner, battling it out in the post. Porziņģis didn’t want a bailout. He thought he had this.
But Robinson kept bodying him up, finally on the verge of getting a stop. Then Porziņģis kept going at him until Robinson lost control, fouling the Celtics center as he went up for a jumper.
A few moments later, Porziņģis was stuck on an island trying to cross up Isaiah Hartenstein. Just when it looked like he couldn’t get anywhere, he just launched a deep 3 that dropped right in. The next play, an easy pick-and-pop 3.
IT’S THE PORZINGIS SHOW 🦄 pic.twitter.com/5g2TAysNJP
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) October 25, 2023
For the first time in years, the Celtics had a third player who couldn’t be stopped. Someone who can get a bucket anywhere, anyhow. It’s the thin but vital line between a good player and a great one. Everything the Knicks tried to take away from Porziņģis, he kept finding something in the end.
Porziņģis became the first Celtic to score 30 points in his franchise debut. Holiday hardly looked like himself. Brown had one of his worst scoring performances in the past year. But at the end of the game, it didn’t matter.
Porziņģis got hit with the first flopping technical in Celtics history and apparently realized that was his recipe for success. Over the final five minutes, he kept getting to the line off marginal contact with the team already in the bonus. Meanwhile, the Knicks blew crucial free throws at just about every opportunity, missing 12 shots at the line on the night.
After his free throws chipped away at New York’s lead, Porziņģis and Tatum ran a flawless pick-and-pop for the big to bury a deep 3. It was the first glimpse at the kinds of two-man actions the Celtics can call up in crunchtime in lieu of the isos Tatum and Brown depended upon last year. Mazzulla loved running guards in for ghost screens last season, trying to get the defense to fumble a switch and give someone room to make a play.
But when the defense didn’t mess it up, it meant a ballhandler had to just try to beat someone off the dribble. That gets exhausting, predictable, and leads to poor shot quality. Whether it’s the pick-and-pop with Porziņģis or working into the post to at least collapse the defense a bit, the Celtics are showing the early signs of a crunchtime offense that can just do something different on a given night.
“We have so many weapons, so many guys that can make things happen at the end,” Porziņģis said. “It’s just about us creating that chemistry and trust in each other and making the right play at the end.”
They dialed up the Porziņģis pick-and-pops to counter the Knicks’ blitzing defense, but they can go to the post if there’s a switch or let Brown and Tatum waltz into pull-ups if the defense drops on Porziņģis rolls. Just the simple dominance of these individual players can finally put defenses in positions where they have to give up a good option to take away a great one.
“(Porziņģis) has an innate ability to put two on the ball, whether they’re trying to pop and veer (a defensive switch), whether they’re trying to blitz him, and so when he gets the space, he’s a magnet,” Mazzulla said. “So we just have to continue to get better at our spacing, get better at our two-on-one reads and they’re going to look different than they did at times last year with him on the floor, but because of him we can get to some more post-ups like we did down the stretch and really change the spacing of the game throughout the game.”
The Celtics have so many issues to work through, from figuring out how to rebound and close out when Porziņģis is manning the paint as the lone big. Holiday needs to find his way in the offense. The bench needs to hit a shot.
But they have the answers in the end, something that has always been this team’s biggest challenge. For their new center to come into his former home, hear the crowd chant “F— Porziņģis” and bring home a win they could have easily given away, that’s the kind of messy reliability this team needs.
“That was awesome. That was awesome,” Porziņģis said. “I’m not going to lie.”
(Photo of Boston’s Kristaps Porziņģis beating the Knicks’ Julius Randle to a rebound Wednesday night: Elsa / Getty Images)