Preseason basketball doesn’t mean everything. In fact, it may not mean much at all. But it can shine light on certain developments. Here are five early takeaways (and potential overreactions) from the beginning of the Celtics’ preseason slate.
Not all training camp hype proves worthy, but Pritchard has followed up some praise from his teammates by thriving over the first three games of the preseason schedule.
Pritchard has averaged 21.3 points over 25.4 minutes per game. Even with a sky-high usage rate of 29.4, he has shot an efficient 41.9 percent on 3-point attempts and 52.3 percent overall. He has taken more than 10 3-pointers per game; it’s difficult just to find that many opportunities, never mind to cash in on as many of them as Pritchard has. He has made 13 3-pointers already and some of them have been tough.
PP IS AT IT AGAIN pic.twitter.com/uKhAo6WG8l
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) October 11, 2023
The Celtics’ actions have made it clear they trust Pritchard to fill a backup role. Their offseason trades cleared a rotation spot for him, then they signed him to a four-year, $30 million contract extension. He won’t always receive as many touches or shot attempts once the regular season arrives, but it sure seems like the coaching staff intends to give him the green light when he’s on the court.
Pritchard’s usage rate has never been above 20 percent. The guess here is that he sets a career-high in that category. The Celtics bench, which also includes Sam Hauser, should come in firing long ball after long ball. Pritchard has played well enough that he could emerge as the seventh man.
2. Joe Mazzulla just seems different
Is Mazzulla an entirely new person after one year on the job? No. Of course not. But he sure does seem more comfortable entering his second season.
Returning players have outlined some of the behind-the-scenes basketball changes. Mazzulla even seems to be more open while dealing with the media. When asked about mistakes by players last season, he typically declined to answer the questions directly. The guess here is that Mazzulla never wanted to throw any of his players under the bus; he didn’t even want to hint publicly at something they had done wrong. But the Celtics players are grown-ups and can handle an honest approach. Ime Udoka’s no-nonsense style certainly seemed to work for many of the same players.
When a reporter in Philadelphia asked about Dalano Banton’s quick benching at the beginning of the second half, Mazzulla detailed exactly what caused him to yank the wing from the game.
“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.
No harm done. Mazzulla outlined the situation while still showing Banton support. The answer won’t be in the opening scene of the Celtics’ championship DVD if they win a title (are DVDs a thing anymore?) but suggests Mazzulla has evolved. The way he answers questions won’t win or lose games for the team this season, but if he’s more assured in his role that could go a long way.
3. The Celtics will need to gang rebound … again
In one of the most surprising Celtics stats last season, they led the league in defensive rebound rate. Even with Robert Williams missing more than half the season and a heavy reliance on small lineups, Boston topped the massive Milwaukee Bucks and every other squad in that category.
How? Among a long list of other factors, Jayson Tatum rebounded like a big man. He ranked 29th in the league in defensive rebound rate. He and Jaylen Brown combined to average nearly 16 rebounds per game. Their ability to clean up the glass helped to mask Williams’ absence and to turn a possible team weakness into a major strength.
Even with Kristaps Porziņģis in town, the Celtics wings and guards will need to remain focused on rebounding. They can play huge lineups now with two of Porziņģis, Al Horford and Luke Kornet on the court, but will be susceptible against the most physical rebounders like Mitchell Robinson showed Wednesday night. The good news: The Celtics’ best perimeter players can all help out on the boards. Oshae Brissett and Lamar Stevens also have an appetite for rebounding, as they have demonstrated throughout the preseason. Rebounding could be a strength for the Celtics again, but only if they continue to do it as a full team.
4. There’s still room for a wing to step up
Beyond whichever of the top-six players joins the second unit, the top candidates to earn bench minutes are likely Pritchard, Hauser and Kornet. The Celtics won’t necessarily need to go deeper than that when fully healthy, but should at least have room for another wing to play when the team is shorthanded. The results from the competitors for that role have been uneven so far.
Svi Mykhailiuk has been by far the best shooter of the bunch, hitting six of his first 11 3-point attempts. He has averaged 15 points per game over his two appearances, but didn’t play in the preseason opener, suggesting he at least started behind some others in the race. As well as he has played offensively, he doesn’t project to make the same defensive impact as the other players in the mix, including Brissett, Stevens and Banton.
Those three haven’t done a lot offensively. Banton showcased his impressive slashing skills while scoring 20 points in a win against the Knicks, but is only shooting 35.7 percent from the field across the entire preseason, including 2 of 9 from behind the arc. Brissett and Stevens have contributed with hustle plays while shooting the ball poorly from outside. At a combined 2 of 15 from behind the arc so far, they have failed to quell the concerns about their shooting strokes.
There’s still time for one of those players to create separation from the rest, but for now I’m not sure there’s a clear leader.
5. The new roster could mesh pretty quickly
The Celtics will go through an adjustment period while fitting in Porziņģis and Holiday, but the early returns have been promising. Porziņģis should open up so much for the team, as our Jared Wess broke down in a recent story. And Holiday just makes winning plays.
They should work well together. Check out this Holiday assist:
Think Jrue Holiday’s playmaking is going to look better with Boston. Beverley goes under the first screen, KP flips right into a re-screen. Holds the drop, sees the help, skip to Horford for 3. pic.twitter.com/b90leYtcEc
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 11, 2023
Porziņģis’ roll draws the weakside defender, leaving Horford wide open in the corner. Holiday spots his teammate and delivers an on-time, on-target pass. The defensive attention on Porziņģis and the playmaking of Holiday combine to produce a clean 3-point look.
The Celtics have a lot of talent, but it all fits together. I think. But it’s only preseason, so it’s still early.
(Photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)