BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla wanted to try something new. The Celtics had played a 7-8 man rotation through their hot start. With two starters out — Jaylen Brown leaving a collision with De’Andre Hunter feeling like he’d been in a car accident — Mazzulla knew he needed to figure out ways to experiment with different combinations in case Boston needs to prioritize health. So he started Dalano Banton.
Banton scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds, logging helpful minutes on both ends of the floor in a winning effort, 113-103, over a hot Hawks team that challenged the Celtics in the playoffs last year. Benefiting from Atlanta entering on a back-to-back with its own injury, Boston cooled off offensively in recent weeks and mostly relied on asserting their size advantage to score on the Hawks. Questions about movement and who this offense wants to be remain, missed layups piling up and another three-point deficit mounting alongside injuries.
A spot Al Horford start and deeper rotations into Boston’s bench led to more passing early as part of a 12-4 run to open the game, Horford and Brown cutting simultaneously on one early possession for Horford to dump him the ball along the baseline. Luke Kornet swung the ball to Derrick White on the weak side after catching a Brown pass on the short roll, eventually swinging around to Sam Hauser for three before Boston ran a similar set with multiple passes setting up Payton Pritchard from deep. White dished 11 assists in the win.
Boston entered Sunday ranked 28th in total passes, only ahead of Dallas and the Clippers, and 26th in assists, with 24.2 per game only ahead of Chicago and New York in the east. The Celtics relied heavily on transition, isolation and offensive rebounding for their hot offensive start before their success in those areas wore off along with their three-point shooting. They fell to 26th in offense in the league over each team’s last five games (108.2).
“We’re shooting less threes,” Mazzulla joked. “I think we set a record for most amount of attempts in two of the games. That’s a part of it. No, I think it’s a little bit of everything. I think we have to play faster. I know that for a fact. We’re not getting to our spacing as fast as we want to see the advantage or the mismatch that we have, so when we do get to our spacing, the reads are a lot easier. That’s a huge key for today, whether it’s a make or a miss, can we sprint to our spacing? Get those early offensive attacks. I think just our shooting in general, whether it’s two-point field goals or threes, we’ve gotta generate easier looks. It’s hard to do at times, but I think overall, our points per possession hasn’t dipped too much. I thought we played really well offensively in the Milwaukee game, I think it was more last game, we just didn’t play with great pace and we didn’t crash as well.”
Kristaps Porziņģis’ injury against Orlando on Friday will sideline him for at least one week, Mazzulla announced pre-game. Jrue Holiday missed a second consecutive game after spraining his ankle last Wednesday. He worked out pre-game, signaling a sooner return, while Porziņģis’ longer-term absence would further stress the team’s waning ability to exploit mismatches, grab offensive boards and contest shots at the rim. Banton and Horford helped with the latter two, Boston grabbing 18 offensive boards, while Tatum and Brown hit enough shots in a sporadic offensive effort in a defensive win. The Celtics held Atlanta to their lowest point total all season following four straight Hawks games where they scored 114 points or more.
Banton fouled twice early and after a +4 stretch for Kornet and the bench to close the first quarter before Mazzulla tried Neemias Queta, who missed two shots on his first offensive possession before sealing Onyeka Okongwu to score his first points as a Celtic. Tatum hit back-to-back threes to hold off Bogdan Bogdanovic and Trae Young’s rally to within four, then he attacked AJ Griffin to split a pair of shots around the rim. His air-ball three fell right into Queta’s hands, positioned beneath the backboard to score an and-one finish. Queta grabbed 10 boards, six on the offensive end including one tip-toeing along the baseline after the ball rolled off the top of the backboard. He had spent the road trip in Maine getting his wind back after missing most of the start of the season with a stress fracture in his foot.
“That’s something I’m much more comfortable doing this year,” Mazzulla said. “You want to win every game, but you have to think with the end in mind, whether you leave a lineup out there a little longer, whether you keep a coverage going a little bit longer because you want to see it, you want to work at it and you want to see if that works. Sometimes that’s changing multiple coverages to get that. I’m much more comfortable with that … it might cost you a 6-0, 8-0 run, I won’t let it cost us a game, but I’m living in that comfort space there.”
The third quarter saw an Atlanta run extend to 19-5 before Mazzulla called timeout ahead of Boston’s mandatory with three minutes remaining in the third. The Hawks shot threes on six of eight possessions between the second and third quarters to pass Boston in volume and pressure them the rest of the way. Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter hit triples over Kornet switched onto the perimeter to cut the 20-point Celtics lead to 16, Bogdanovic stepped into another, Hunter isolated Kornet into a two-pointer after a Brown offensive foul before Tatum turned the ball over and shoved Hunter from behind for a clear path foul.
After a timeout, leading by only six, Brown hit Queta for an entry pass for a finish inside then drove-and-kicked to Hauser for three. Boston went on to win the fourth, hardening defensively as the Hawks finished 2-for-10 from deep. Quick shots over mismatches helped the defense. Isolation mistakes led to damaging Atlanta run-outs.
Brown continued his run of playmaking improvement stemming back to his career passing night at the Bucks by running pick-and-roll often and helping win the non-Tatum minutes by seven. White targeted Tatum backing Young into the post after Hauser looked away from him floating in the corner against the guard. That same methodical mismatch-hunting led to 1.00 points per possession in isolation, a good number for the fourth-most frequent team to run them, but leading to 43% shooting in those spots.
The post-up for Tatum and Porziņģis fares much better, 1.26 PPP to lead all teams, and they’re 12th in transition possessions per game. Those numbers fell from their hot start to the season, accounting to the team’s decline on the offensive end. As Mazzulla mentioned pre-game, that depends on the opponent, the Hawks an easier team to isolate, with pace and movement needed against the longer, active defensive teams. Banton provided a dose of that. Queta dominated the boards.
Good enough to surprise Brown when he heard about the team’s offensive regression post-game.
“Our assist rate is down this year? That’s news to me,” Brown said. “It seems like the ball is definitely moving around, we’re getting guys involved, finding the right reads and matchups. I don’t know what the analytics say, maybe some of the games we haven’t done that balance it out, but for the most part, I thought we’ve played some good, unselfish team basketball … I like the way our teams feels right now … different style, different team … all of us have been adjusting figuring out what this team needs to win … 15-16 games in, we’ve still been figuring it out, but we’re winning and figuring it out … this team is not a finished product, we still got a lot to improve on, we still haven’t played our best basketball yet.”