The Celtics beat the Knicks 123-110 in what will likely prove their dress rehearsal for opening night in New York one week from Wednesday. Jrue Holiday and Derrick White started, sending Al Horford to the second unit for the first time since 2021, but Boston’s top six logged the bulk of the minutes, with Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser and a brief Luke Kornet cameo mixed in through the first 3.5 quarters.
Kristaps Porziņģis shined on both ends, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum found their shot and Holiday worked through first half struggles to play a stronger third quarter. New York sat most of its regular rotation players, ahead of a back-to-back, with Donte DiVincenzo, Miles McBride, Quentin Grimes and Mitchell Robinson running the Knicks’ offense.
Here are five takeaways from the win:
1. Jrue Holiday starts and sees mixed results offensively
Holiday started and scored 10 points with seven rebounds, four assists and two steals, turning the ball over three times and shooting 4-for-7 (1-2 3PT) after coming off the bench in last Sunday’s preseason opener. The starting lineup remains undecided ahead of next week’s first regular season game at New York, and sources, multiple players and Joe Mazzulla have pointed toward a starter by committee approach to the fifth starting lineup spot. Tim Bontemps, Zach Lowe and Jake Fischer have all mentioned in podcast appearances the possibility that Holiday comes off the bench, and Holiday said he’s open to do so when asked by CLNS Media this week. Given his arrival two weeks ago, continued acclimation to the team and his ability to handle the ball more with the second unit, a bench role, albeit a sizable one, might make some sense early in the season.
Holiday and Derrick White flashed the enticing possibilities of their back court pairing in the first quarter though, as Boston shot ahead 41-30 while converting 9-of-16 threes. He swung kicked out pass from the post to Kristaps Porziņģis for three on the first possession, then guarded Jericho Sims at the four so he could get involved in pick-and-roll coverage alongside White on the ball. First, he read and cut off a Knicks pick-and-pop play to score in transition, then he blew up a play by helping trap Donte DiVincenzo. The second quarter proved less productive, turning the ball over twice late and ripping his headband off in frustration, and talking through another player after timeout where Brown and Holiday appeared to miscommunicate.
“Turnovers or lack of offensive execution are going to happen throughout the game, it’s more about recognizing when you’re in those situations and quickly getting out of them … I think it’s just learning how to play with guys. Four guys who have been playing together for a long time,” Mazzulla said. “All of our team getting to know each other on the court, it’s hard to simulate that when you’re practicing. You need those game reps. Jrue’s a smart guy, we have a willing team that’s willing to incorporate everybody and we just have to continue to learn about each other and how we can make each other better on the floor.”
2. Al Horford comes off the bench for the first time since 2021
Horford sat to start Tuesday’s win as Boston went with a lone big after starting Horford alongside Porziņģis last Sunday and Wednesday against Philadelphia. With most of the team’s scrimmage lineups posted to social media featuring the pair together, and both Mazzulla and Brad Stevens expressing intrigue in both double big lineups in general, and Luke Kornet as a rotation big, the move gave Boston a different look rather than reflecting what they’ll do next week.
Horford expressed a willingness to come off the bench in spots, and his ability to do so effectively against the Knicks bodes well for lineup flexibility. He shot 2-for-4 with five points, two rebounds and three assists while Boston outscored New York by 17 points during his minutes. After entering midway through the first quarter, he knocked a loose ball out-of-bounds off DiVincenzo after running back in transition, hit a baseline two and corner three, found Payton Pritchard for a pair of off-ball threes, and ripped an offensive rebound out of DaQuan Jeffries’ hands following his own miss on a play that became a Tatum three. Tatum praised Horford setting an example for the rest of the team to sacrifice when asked by CLNS about the starting lineup situation.
“At some point, everybody’s going to have to sacrifice,” Tatum said. “We probably have six starters…so, between those six guys, any given night, somebody might come off the bench. Somebody might not finish. And it’s on all of us to understand that whoever’s night it is, it’s for the better of the team. We really have to buy into that. It’s not easy sacrificing, but we all have to do it. Like tonight, Al coming off the bench. I have the utmost respect for Al. If Al can come off the bench at this stage in his career, nobody should have anything to say if you’re the guy who comes off the bench or Joe takes you out of the game or you don’t finish. Everyone has to have that team-first mindset to accomplish what we want to do.”
3. Kristaps Porziņģis overwhelming in another preseason masterpiece
Porziņģis stuck a three on the first possession of the game, shooting 8-for-13, hit 4-of-8 from three and grabbed nine rebounds. He blocked two shots, contest numerous others and added a steal in another dominant showing that should turn heads around the NBA. Porziņģis played up to the screens, derailed the Knicks’ interior offense and capped a flashy night with an alley-oop, two handed slam high above the rim.
On one early play, he recorded a stop, recovered to the trail spot and ran downhill to record a put back. His pick-and-roll defense looks as sharp as it did with the Wizards last year, deflecting several passes. He even played productive in the defense’s press plays, extending to near half court. Porziņģis moved spryly, while his presence as an easy target on offense makes play-making easier for Brown, Tatum and the team’s other facilitators.
“We got a lot of guys that can take the pressure off, a lot of guys that can be that release valve. I’m looking for K.P. a lot,” Brown told CLNS. “Just coming out of those pick-and-roll situations, but the basketball tells you what to do. You’ve gotta play the game how you see it in front of you, still be aggressive, still get out in transition, but we’ve got a lot of good guys on our team, so each night is gonna be different. You gotta be ready for that.”
4. Jayson Tatum’s physicality in the post showing
Tatum said on media day he added 12 pounds of muscle during the offseason, and while some might slide off into the flow of regular games, he’s using that strength to play in the post more, grabbing eight more rebounds and blocking a shot inside early. Sam Cassell spent much of training camp following practices in front of Tatum’s post-ups, urging him to play aggressively. Battling in the paint can lead to some frustration evident early following a no-call that Tatum complained about, among others, for much of Wednesday. Cassell looked intent on preparing Tatum for that reality, motioning back-and-forth over the weekend about Tatum utilizing his arm, a common source of offensive fouls for the star. Tatum shot 4-of-6 inside in the win, 5-of-8 from three and drew five free throw attempts in the win.
“That’s something we work on every day after practice,” Cassell said. “A little bit at a time … it’s been great. He talks a lot. He’s a very animated guy. A lot of personality, but he’s very funny, a lot of great stories and he knows a lot. He played 14-15 years in this league, is well respected and it’s great to have somebody who’s been a player, had a lot of success and won championships. So I’m learning a lot and we love having him around.”
5. Sam Hauser secures his spot
Hauser logged 22 minutes as the Celtics’ lone backup wing in a tighter rotation on Wednesday, solidifying his spot off the bench most nights with 15 points, 3-for-7 three-point shooting, a pair of offensive rebounds and two assists. Dalano Banton didn’t see time until the fourth quarter, Oshae Brissett didn’t play until later and both Lamar Stevens and Svi Mykhailiuk did not play. Mazzulla might still opt for some matchup-based flexibility, but Hauser successfully defending his every night role from a year ago after beginning the preseason 3-for-16 from the field impressed me. He looks stronger, drawing free throws with a transition take to the rim and his vision attacking closeouts definitely improved over the summer, finding Horford for a kick-out three.