NEW YORK — Joe Mazzulla waited until shootaround to tell Al Horford he would return to the starting lineup for the first time this season. He might prefer to do that nightly, but he knows these Celtics are loaded.
Derrick White didn’t travel to Brooklyn, missing only his second game with the Celtics awaiting the birth of his second child in Boston. Mazzulla didn’t know whether White would meet the team in Minnesota on Monday. He used the opportunity on Saturday to affirm Horford’s early efforts and the second unit players around him — despite inconsistent early returns — by starting Horford and sticking with the same bench rotation.
“We’ve shown possessions playing double big throughout the year,” Mazzulla said. “I like what we’ve had in that … we’re gonna have to go to it in certain lineups … the biggest adjustment is guarding different coverages in the second unit, most second units are smaller, they play a little bit faster. We’ve gone with some different defenses with him in there, as opposed to being in there versus first-unit guys. From a mentality standpoint, I think (Horford)’s flourished in it and one of the things that sticks out is he’s crashing at one of the highest rates he has in his career and that’s given us extra possessions … (I’m) grateful that he’s buying into the role that we need.”
Horford withheld his thoughts entering training camp about starting. He left the decision to Mazzulla and the coaches. Upon returning to Boston in 2021, he shared his preference was starting. He only appeared off the bench in 14 games prior to this year, and while Mazzulla sold him on a variety of starting lineups rotating throughout the season, the Celtics’ starters outscored opponents by 37.3 points per 100 possessions through their 4-0 start.
That left no debate about who should begin games — and Horford saw an opportunity to assist an important second unit on a top-heavy team as he attempts to win his first championship. He continued to do so in Saturday’s 124-114 win in Brooklyn, staggering into second units while Boston out-scored the Nets by 29 across his 30 minutes. The Celtics’ bench improved from last to 25th in scoring (26.0 PPG) over the past two games.
His energetic approach to stepping into games carried over to his opening stint alongside Kristaps Porziņģis. The Nets played without Ben Simmons, Nic Claxton and Cam Johnson, opting to play smaller and allowing for offensive rebounds the Celtics stressed early in the schedule. Porziņģis took short turnaround jumpers on the first two possessions of the game, and Horford boxed out Royce O’Neale to put the miss back in. His 15.2 offensive rebounding percentage through five games marks a career high. Brooklyn protected the ball, played fast, crashed the glass and shot nearly as well as Boston, presenting different challenges. Horford, on the sideline, can now observe and address them upon entry.
“My biggest thing is, at the beginning of the game, you should try to establish yourself and establish the pace of the game,” Horford told CLNS Media after the game. “When I’m coming in now as a sub, it’s to just bring energy, make sure that our energy goes up, that our intensity continues. That we keep building in what the first unit did. That’s, I guess, the difference, but as far as preparation and everything is the same. You’re a competitor at the end of the day. You want to be in certain positions.”
“For me, I’m trying to impact winning and to help our team. Right now, it’s for me to be in the position and that’s what I’m doing. It’s one of those things that the more games that we play, the more comfortable we’ll become, the more comfortable we’ll be with the system and what coach is trying to do. Usually, either J.T. is in there or J.B. is in there or Jrue, maybe two or three (starters) are in there. So it hasn’t been a true, I feel, second unit thing.”
The Celtics started 7-for-11 from the field and led 22-13 when Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard subbed in. The bench received a meeting with Mazzulla after faltering in the win over Washington, a chance for an entire group to play together and mesh they struggled in. Dalano Banton and others said they didn’t enter that game trying to prove themselves individually, but rather play together cohesively. Mazzulla shied away from trying Banton, Lamar Stevens and other deeper options when Pritchard, Hauser and Kornet faltered through the opening games (-6.1, 24 min. as a 3-man group). Mazzulla believes in them.
They struggled to perform without any facilitating, however, and they lost on the boards, didn’t execute spacing and other principles on the margins that Mazzulla stresses. Kornet blamed that night and the overall struggles for a bench unit ranking among the lowest-scoring ones in the league on a new-look group learning each other.
Oshae Brissett’s arrival and Horford’s presence after years of Robert Williams III logging more second unit minutes changed things. Malcolm Brogdon’s constant presence disappeared while scoring and connective tissue between Grant Williams, Mike Muscala and Blake Griffin, who helped lead a group that outscored opponents last year with Brown and Tatum off the floor (+4). They nearly beat fully-loaded Milwaukee in March with key starters sitting. Early in this schedule, they looked incapable of beating the end of the Wizards’ bench.
That changed late in the win over the Pacers, with a 46-point fourth quarter, and carried into Brooklyn. Kornet scored 11 points, Hauser added five and Brissett grabbed three rebounds alongside five points on Saturday.
Small ball Nets lineups with Dorian Finney-Smith playing center and hockey substitution patterns, introducing layers of energetic efforts by Brooklyn scorers and wings provided Boston a unique challenge. Their three-point volume (52 attempts) nearly broke the Celtics’ drop scheme. Day’Ron Sharpe challenged Boston’s bigs on the offensive glass and Lonnie Walker IV provided a 9-0 run by himself in the second quarter.
“Our effort never waned. They put a ton of pressure on your defense because of the way they shoot, how fast they play, they spread you out,” Mazzulla said. “Then they have 3-4 guys who can make hard, hard shots … we did a better job of changing our coverage early in the second half … but you can’t really do that from time-to-time … it’s a tough matchup for us … I thought our bench came through tonight. I thought those guys competed, they played hard. I thought Luke gave us great, great minutes with just him and double big.”
Boston had answers in this game though, namely staggering Jrue Holiday and Tatum into those second units, as Horford mentioned. Holiday found Kornet for a running layup, then Hauser cut off a Sharpe pass and dunked in transition to keep the Celtics ahead 91-88, withholding a 30-21 Nets third quarter rally. Brissett started the fourth drawing a pair of free throws cutting from the corner, Kornet stole an errant Dennis Smith Jr. pass as he drove into his airspace. Pritchard hit Kornet for a rim-running three point play, and as Smith Jr. attacked Kornet to pull within one point again, Horford walked to the scorer’s table. Not to replace Kornet, but to play next to him.
Plays later — Kornet flushed a Holiday alley-oop to go back up six. It set the table for Tatum’s four-point finish and Boston’s 28-19 finish in another win. One capped by a pair of Horford finishes on the fast break.
“It’s just going back and looking at the decisions I made,” Kornet said on assessing his and the bench’s play. “Working with Charles (Lee) and Amile (Jefferson) … sometimes I can feel just as solid about decisions I made in a game where it’s 11 points versus a game where it’s 0. It changes night-to-night … energy level and how aggressive I’m being. Sometimes you can get three offensive rebounds and you lucked into them, and other times you pursue the ball and you never got any.”
“So it’s looking back at what your decision-making was, what your reads were and then the rest, from there, is out of your control. A lot of it is … looking to see what went wrong, what might’ve been lacking. Sometimes it might not have been effort level or intent as much as being dialed into a specific thing that lets the rest flow … how on the same page we were … we’ve done a better job of doing that.”