BOSTON — The In Season Tournament opener that Joe Mazzulla described as 1-of-82 ended up meaning more for the players who stand to benefit the most from it.
Boston’s bench players helped drive the 121-107 cruise past the Nets with 52 three-point attempts. The Celtics didn’t talk much about the implications of tournament play on Friday morning. Mazzulla keyed in on the second unit while leaving unstated that the $500,000 on the line would mean the most to the players driving it.
A fitting result followed.
“Need? I don’t know,” Mazzulla said when asked if Boston needs more bench scoring. “What I’d rather have is our role guys being confident and understanding that they have to impact the game. Whether it’s by making threes, scoring in transition, making it to the free throw line, offensive rebounding and playing defense. I don’t know if we need (points), but what we need more are the guys that are on the bench that are coming in to play, they gotta know that we need them to play well for us to win. That might look different in different games.”
The Nets and Celtics played an effective three-point contest throughout the first half. They combined for 53 attempts and both teams surpassed 40%, Boston gaining a narrow edge on the offensive boards and by keeping their turnovers low. Mazzulla has long saw quick shots as a way to limit giveaways. Boston fired away in early offense and following outlet passes.
Brown started 4-for-5 from deep and Kristaps Porziņģis successfully sealed Cam Johnson and Spencer Dinwiddie in the opening possessions to gain a 12-5 lead Boston held throughout. Brooklyn never fell behind by more than 15 points until close to halftime and out-shot the Celtics into the second half from three. Boston’s transition game and overall flexibility on offense made them nearly impossible for a smaller Nets team to gather stops and rally. Especially once the second units came into play.
Jacque Vaughn knew the threat the Celtics’ starters presented after they pulled ahead of the Nets in Brooklyn on Saturday. He wondered how Boston would play off the bench with Al Horford out on the front end of a back-to-back. The Celtics could play Luke Kornet, Oshae Brissett or go even smaller. Mazzulla did all the above, and received a much-needed bench boost that allowed Boston to maintain a lead throughout.
Brissett entered with an offensive rebound that set up Brown free throws. Sam Hauser shot 5-for-10 from three to improve to 42.6% from three. Payton Pritchard entered with a much-needed three that broke a 27-27 tie after some Nets run-outs midway through the quarter and three consecutive scoreless nights for Pritchard.
While his outside shot mostly fell flat (2-7), Pritchard crashed the glass, drove-and-kicked and played with more confidence through longer stretches with Horford out. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds and three assists on 5-for-10 shooting.
“It started messing with me mentally a little bit,” Pritchard said. “I went back to what made me a good shooter in the first place and dialed it back into that. It’s a mental game that affects you, you start second-guessing shots, but at the end of the day you put in too much work, so I believed in myself … eliminating all the distractions. That’s all I really did … (teammates told me) keep shooting. I missed 11 in a row since the Indiana game. I’m not gonna do that much and they know that. I’ve shown through my career here with the Celtics … defensively, offensive rebounds, any way I can help the team win.”
Pritchard recalled Mazzulla urging him to continue shooting and assuring that he wouldn’t land on the bench if he misses. Friday’s win became one of the longer leashes Pritchard received throughout his career, effectively filling Horford’s rotation spot with 30 minutes and extended runs with starters. That, he said, aided his performance.
Mazzulla anticipated sneaking in some additional bench players for first half minutes, finding nine for Svi Mykhailiuk, who finished 0-for-1 between the second and late in the fourth. He teased Dalano Banton minutes that didn’t come. Brissett helped on the offensive glass early. He couldn’t add to what became the league’s worst scoring second unit through seven games. Mazzulla remained confident the Pritchard, Hauser and Kornet trio could, and by staggering Tatum’s minutes alongside theirs found stretches to maintain and extend leads in the win. Opponents, however, have now outscored the Celtics by 11 points per 100 possessions with Tatum on the bench.
Tatum and Pritchard shared the floor in the second while the latter stripped Mikal Bridges and drew a take foul. Holiday entered halfway through the second quarter and caught a pass from Pritchard cutting to the rim for a layup. Holiday returned the favor before Boston’s starters shuffled in while Pritchard remained in the game.
The spaced lineup created three consecutive jump shots for Tatum after he scored 0 points in the first. He went quiet again in the third, while White, Brown and Holiday managed the offense. Porziņģis sacrificed again — attempting only four shots. He, instead, spent the third stopping Bridges, Trendon Watford and Lonnie Walker IV inside. Boston’s defense managed to keep Brooklyn’s hot shooting offense at arm’s length all night.
Quality passing helped as well, with the Celtics’ seven turnovers marking a season low. Boston managed through 2-for-10 three-point shooting, a few shaky rim reads and a strange Porziņģis technical foul where he tossed the ball in the air after Dennis Smith Jr. made a basket. The Celtics lost an out-of-bounds challenge and the quarter, 30-27, but kept finding production from the bench. Kornet caught a Derrick White alley-oop. Pritchard put back his own free throw miss. Hauser hit a three early in the fourth after Pritchard found him following an offensive rebound by passing out of a double team along the baseline. A Kornet-led high set go Tatum back on the board from three.
By the midway point in the third, the Nets trailed again by double-digits while Pritchard and Hauser ran ahead in transition to find open space for another shot. Pritchard drove more confidently and in control. Kornet blocked Day’Ron Sharpe, grabbing two more offensive boards and finding Pritchard cutting toward the post. His efforts went from an afterthought to a topic of discussion in the Nets post-game presser. Should Brooklyn have put more size on the court against Kornet? That’s problem Boston hopes its bench can continue to raise for opponents.
“Continually being aggressive,” Holiday said. “Every player’s gonna go through a shooting slump. Staying positive mentally, staying aggressive, taking the best shot you can is key. They do it every night, but tonight they did it and they started falling. Knowing P, he can get to the basket, he can score whenever he wants to. When his three-point shot starts falling, he’s damn near unstoppable. Then Sam, sometimes he shoots it so high I don’t feel like it doesn’t touch anything when it goes through the net. Always good to see them get going off the bench.”