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How the Celtics Built One of Its Best Teams in Franchise History

BOSTON — Damian Lillard thought the Bucks’ season would play out how the Celtics’ did. As what would finish as a 15.0 game gap between the east’s co-favorites formed, Milwaukee’s new star submitted that concession with his Bucks still in second place. Defensive problems, a mid-season coaching change following an offseason one, along with depth challenges aided in making a 49-33 regular season feel more like a failure.

Nothing played a bigger part in that storyline than the Celtics sprinting miles ahead of them early and separating, and separating and separating.

“Treat every game the same, handle winning and losing the same, be open-minded toward getting better,” Joe Mazzulla said Sunday, asked what he’s most proud of Boston accomplishing this year. “Competing at a high, high level. I know the last couple of games, we didn’t win, but I think for the most part our guys approached the season with a business-like approach and they wanted to get better every single day. Just have to continue that heading into the playoffs.”

“Re-energizing (for the playoffs) would assume that we were not energized. There’s no such thing as re-energize. You stick with it, keep getting get back to it … we’re ready to go.”

  • Open-mindedness defined Mazzulla’s approach to year two. Entering training camp, he explained a renewed focus on defense that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown initiated over the summer. He admitted he didn’t think he had to talk about that side of the ball in his first season, seeing it as mandatory and expecting 2022’s success to carry over.
  • After focusing heavily on three-point rate in his rookie campaign, he embraced post-ups, citing new personnel and games against high-volume, variance reliant opponents like Philadelphia and Indiana convinced him to prioritize getting the best shot.
  • The bench he relied on sparingly in 2023 became a constant focus throughout this campaign, stay ready, instilling trust and confidence through rest nights and the occasional injury. Sam Hauser, Payton Pritchard and Luke Kornet shined.
  • He equalized the shot total and opportunity hierarchy by prioritizing matchup-hunting.

Those became the four biggest factors in a team that probably would’ve finished first among a number of competitors separating itself and becoming one of the best teams in NBA history (third all-time in net rating, +11.7). The additions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, along with at least offsetting the impact injuries and regression would have on the team by moving on from Marcus Smart, Grant Williams and others, played a significant part.

The Celtics had to make it work, and for all the 2008 comparisons during the first week of camp, creating that environment doesn’t happen automatically. Mazzulla credits the players and their mindset for that. They constantly lauded the way he made them think the game.

“Joe has definitely grown my game,” Holiday said last week. “Grown my vision and perspective on basketball where every year I do plan to grow, but I think being able to give me a different responsibility to look at the game differently, especially with the players and pieces that we have, I’ve never been on a team like this. It’s been fun to get to know Joe and his craziness and his schemes, but at the same time, really see our team put it together.”

This Celtics team doesn’t happen if the Bucks don’t allow for it. Brad Stevens and the front office calculated Porzingis could unlock the offense and balance a crowded back court with a taxed front court. Holiday’s availability happened at the turn of the calendar. Milwaukee had to make the deal while praying the Celtics didn’t land the former champion guard. They did, meeting Portland’s demand for four first-round picks of value, utilizing one that they acquired for Smart. It takes some talent and smart moves to win a title. It also requires luck.

For all the talk about sacrifice this year, Tatum and Brown got their shots, Derrick White played plenty of point guard and Porzingis received the rock every time against smaller defenders. Holiday mostly stood in the corner. He never shrugged, instead hitting 60.4% of the shots he took there, screening and taking over as the team’s de-facto defensive coordinator while scoring nearly seven fewer points per game. Mazzulla empowered him defensively in a way Holiday never recalled receiving before, Boston’s head coach trusting the veteran guard’s encyclopedic knowledge of opponent tendencies and when to switch schemes. The Celtics changed matchups, pressed, zoned and switched more late in the year after Mazzulla emphasized needing to find a curveball on that end. Holiday provided it.

It wouldn’t have worked without him. Boston used Porzingis as a roamer, Holiday often guarded bigs and when they switched coverages — the guard in the middle called it.

“They all know their roles,” Victor Wembanyama said earlier this year, encapsulating the Celtics at a glance. “They’re all willing to share the ball, from the most important, franchise guys to the role players. Everybody is ready to compete and make the sacrifices, I can see that. I can see that more compared to the last years as well, just watching them. I remember watching them in the Finals with Golden State a few years ago. I can see the growth.”

Offensively, the biggest question entering the season became Brown’s acclimation to the new offense. Porzingis would pull opportunity away from him as the screener. White prepared to play point and Tatum would log whatever on-ball moments he didn’t. Where, and how, would the reigning All-NBA forward score from? Especially when his second units struggled mightily the year before. The answer became attacking mismatches, finding them in the post, in transition and surpassing his efficiency from last year at 49.9%. Brown made the case to return to the league’s top-15, regardless of position under new rules, and did it while prioritizing an on-ball defensive focus.

Claiming matchups helped the team’s defense. Balancing responsibility saved the offense from an opportunity crisis. Finding the worst defender became the focus over shot totals, ball time and where everyone played on the floor. By the end of the year, no weak link on the opposing side could survive a moment without Boston finding them. The Celtics, among countless other examples, shot 73.3% when Luka Dončić guarded them on Mar. 1, pulling away from Dallas, too, for a 138-110 victory. They won by 20 points 19 times. They became the smartest team in basketball.

“(Opponents are) trying to figure out which is the remedy for success against us. We’re able to adjust, we’re versatile, we’re able to read the game differently,” Brown said. “We’re a more organized team this year. We have actions, we’re thinking the game … we take our time, we identify mismatches and we play the game the right way. I think this is one of the best years that we’ve done that since I’ve been a Celtic.”

Boston clinched the east’s top seed one week prior to April and before anyone else secured a playoff spot. That allowed the bench to slam the door. Pritchard in many ways became a Malcom Brogdon replacement, shooting 38% from three, playing 82 games and posting 12 of his 25 highest career assist games since March began (4.9 APG). Hauser shot 42.5% from three and hit four or more in a game 18 times, including four late in the year where he knocked down six. Kornet shot 69.7% from the field and averaged 9.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. Deeper roster players like Oshae Brissett, Neemias Queta and Xavier Tillman helped win games. At least one bench player stepped up in most games this year.

As the playoffs loom, last year’s letdowns still preventing some from fully embracing the best team in the league’s title chances. Mazzulla doesn’t see a difference in how they’ll win. He’ll prepare how he did all year, prioritize the same things and said on 98.5 The Sports Hub earlier this month that he’ll utilize the bench extensively too. They did it all year, he said, so they have to do it now. A transition alongside the team’s difficulties late in games that provide the only possible nits to pick fro a nearly perfect team.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Mazzulla said, addressing the pressure to win. “Yeah, there’s pressure. I put it on myself every single day to be the best coach, to win, to be the best husband, the best father. Pressure is something looked at as a negative, but in reality, it’s just something that’s there and why wouldn’t you want that? I couldn’t imagine having a job where the expectations aren’t to win this year, but then what are they?”

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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