The Celtics squandered a 16-point lead midway through Friday’s In Season Tournament game against the Raptors in Toronto. The Raptors entered with motivation following last Saturday’s embarrassing loss in Boston. The Celtics shot 34.8% from three and saw Jayson Tatum play his worst game of the season. Tight margins on the boards, free throw lines and in the turnover department held both teams even late.
Boston could’ve easily dropped this game and likely would have last year considering the team’s 13-19 record when shooting below 36% from deep. Instead, Jrue Holiday found Kristaps Porziņģis for a pair of game-tying post turnarounds and Derrick White for the game-winning three before Scottie Barnes missed an open potential equalizer from the corner to seal a 108-105 win. Robert Williams III and Al Horford couldn’t make those plays in the paint in traffic last season, adding to Joe Mazzulla’s emphasis on finding different ways to win.
“(Post-ups) give us different ways to win basketball games,” Mazzulla said earlier this month. “When you’re able to get those easy baskets, it settles our guys down.”
The Raptors, by contrast, couldn’t find those looks closer to the basket late as the Celtics defended the perimeter versatilely. Dennis Schröder launched a long three and Pascal Siakam missed a leaning two-pointer leading by two before Jakob Poetl tied the game putting back Schröder’s driving miss to match Porziņģis’ first make. Schröder missed a floater tied at 103 and Barnes’ open look that came as a result of Boston’s defensive miscommunication didn’t fall.
Mazzulla thought the Celtics weren’t the best version of themselves in the loss, but they improved to 4-2 in clutch-and-late games anyway. Boston has outscored its opponents by 37.7 points per 100 possessions in those situations, only surpassed by Dallas in net rating, while playing the third-best offense and fifth-best defense in crunch time. That follows a postseason where the Celtics’ competition beat them by 11.4 points per 100.
“That’s something we’re really hoping (Porziņģis) can help us with,” Mazzulla said in October. “Creating two-on-ones in different ways, whether it’s a pick-and-pop or whether it’s them having to change the matchup so we can post or we can get some offensive rebounds.”
Porziņģis improved to 3-for-5 with 13 points after his free throws proved crucial in downing the Knicks on opening night. Holiday and White led the offense late against the Heat in the home opener, combining for 6-for-11 shooting so far in close-and-late games. Even losses to Minnesota and Philadelphia saw the Celtics create a good game-winner attempt for Jaylen Brown at the end of regulation against the Wolves. Boston stormed back and fed Porziņģis a wide open three that could’ve forced overtime in Philadelphia last week. Tatum, White and Horford made crunch time short-lived in the rematch against the Sixers on Wednesday.
All six of the Celtics’ top rotation players factored prominently in those first six games, drawing back on Mazzulla’s flexibility approach. Past Boston teams saw the offense jammed up late, settling for jump shots, turning the ball over or forced to funnel the ball to streaky shooters like Marcus Smart and Horford routinely. Now, slips by Porziņģis, White and Holiday away from Tatum can force imbalance. Help defenders pulled off Brown can free him. Tatum often plays the passing role or receives the ball against an opposing mismatch.
“It’s another look that we can give teams later on,” Porziņģis said. “Of course, we want to get the ball in J.B. and J.T.’s hands, but if we have something else to go to, boom, put smaller guards in the pick-and-roll with me and see what they do. If they switch, we can make them pay there. If they switch, and have a five on one of these guys, they’re gonna make them pay also. So it’s just more options, more weapons and we took advantage of that tonight.”
Past Celtics teams easily had their crunch time offense re-routed toward Horford and Smart, who took 26 shots compared to 15 by Brown and Tatum over a 12 game playoff stretch between 2022-2023. This year, Brown and Tatum lead the team with 15 attempts in the clutch compared to six by Holiday and five each from Porziņģis and White. They’ve produced 13 assists with nine turnovers, a 1.44 ratio.
Boston and Toronto tied the fourth quarter, 24-24, where overall the Celtics have overall outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100, still a good mark while considering a 46-point bench outburst in the Indiana blowout swayed it upward. The Celtics shot 9-for-22 (41%) in Friday’s fourth quarter, missed seven threes and turned the ball over twice. When crunch time hit — they came through again — and now sit atop their IST group at 2-0.
“We just kept playing,” Brown said. “Played all the way through. We kind of sucked tonight, didn’t play our best, but we found a way to play anyway. We didn’t make a lot of shots. Defensively, we let them score a lot in transition. We knew that, before the game, that they were going to push to score in transition. We let them get a lot of transition points tonight. We didn’t play our best game, but we still found a way to win.”