When Marcus Smart and Trae Young tumbled to the floor in some sort of spiraling dance routine — leading to Smart’s ejection in the final minutes for confronting Young — Malcolm Brogdon received some closing minutes with Boston ahead by six points alongside Derrick White. The pair helped build a double-digit first half lead the Celtics protected the rest of the way, and Brogdon boosted them ahead by eight again with 33.8 seconds remaining, running in transition following an Al Horford block.
Brogdon passed out of pressure into five assists and hit 8-of-12 from the field in a 134-125 win over Atlanta where Joe Mazzulla found his tightest, most stable rotation in recent weeks while Robert Williams III’s (hamstring) return looms sometime this week. While Williams III could reunite with Al Horford and try once more to rekindle the magic the former starting lineup achieved last year, the Celtics’ latest win showed they should lean into their new identity.
“We’ll see,” Mazzulla said last week about whether Williams III and the starters can find enough time together. “We’ll see when Rob comes back, how many games he comes back (for). I think right now, it’s more about just finding different lineups and continuing to find a continuity, an identity where we can play different ways, and have our bench being confident, being ready to play. We have a lot of different weapons, we can go a lot of different ways. While we’re playing, we just have to figure out the best lineups.”
With White on the floor in place of Williams III with the team’s typical starters, the Celtics score 121.7 points per possession, in line with the historic rate Boston produced offense at early this season, and the league-best Kings. The group outscored opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions in 338 minutes, boasted a 70.5% assist rate and converted 60.6 eFG%. The unit can play five out, featuring three-point shooters at every position, with strong screeners in Horford and White able to unlock Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who combined for 58 points on 22-for-43 shooting on Saturday.
The Celtics inched closer back toward their fall identity by hitting 20-of-42 from three, scoring on nine straight possessions early in the fourth quarter and generating 23 points in five minutes. The up-and-down style also saw John Collins and Clint Capela flying to the rim for finishes and a Trae Young pull-up three as both teams traded leads early. A bench unit combining White and Brogdon’s minutes with Tatum and Sam Hauser at the end of the first and second quarters scored 123.5 points per 100 possessions in seven minutes. Mazzulla had emphasized those stretches for being as important as the fourth quarter and crunch time.
“The situation that we’re in right now, we can’t really control what seed we get,” Mazzulla said. “I think it’s more about, the same habits that were at the beginning of the year, we’ve gotta focus on what we do well and can we do it for long stretches at a time. I think there’s such a small separation in the NBA of a great team to a really good team and those come down to overtime games, possessions, end of quarters, all those little things. So the more we build an awareness to those, manage those and work through those, I think that’s going to help us a lot.”
Tatum and Brogdon opened the second quarter slicing up the Hawks’ defense in accordance with Mazzulla’s wish. A smart play setting up Hauser in the wing for three boosted Boston ahead 49-40, before Brogdon found Hauser and Horford for additional threes midway through the frame. Then, those starters maintained the double-digit lead into halftime against a Young-led Hawks charge. White and Brown kept driving into the third, while Tatum shot 14 aggressive threes the Celtics hope can alter opposing defenses and hit five, freeing Boston to hit 26-of-35 (74.3%) at the rim. Mazzulla also believes the defense’s raised pick-up points allows for more two-on-one play.
Smart missed three shots during that stretch and fell below 40% FG since his return from injury. His fourth quarter offensive rebound set up his own three and his give-and-go passes bolstered Boston in key spots, but a wide open turnover running in transition, forced jumper from the high post and an air ball corner three attempt fueled Atlanta’s comeback attempt. While Mazzulla continued to look away from struggling Grant Williams in the win, receiving productive minutes from Blake Griffin, Smart held down the lead guard minutes until his ejection.
“The real question is, are there bad shots you can take in the last six minutes? The answer’s yes,” Mazzulla said last week. “The idea is to fight for the absolute best shot regardless … we’re at our best when we do that for long stretches of time, regardless of if it’s the last six minutes or the last two minutes of the fourth quarter.”
If Mazzulla favors and trusts Smart in that rule, that makes funneling extra minutes toward White as a starter all the more important. Mazzulla regretted not playing White more in a rare admission after last Sunday’s loss to the Knicks, he told Sean Grande. Since, White is averaging over 35 minutes and shooting over 50% FG. Horford, who hit 3-of-5 from three to improve to 45.7% from three this season, will pull opponents out of the paint and both his switching and drop skills on defense led to a pair of key rejections in Saturday’s win. It’s an excellent lineup.
More importantly, Boston’s players cared for the turnover battle, built a small enough free throw deficit to assert their three-point advantage and rebounded competitively given their size. The Celtics, in victory, played attentive to the emphasizes of their head coach, and in accordance poured 54.7% shooting on the Hawks’ poor defense, something the new, or old, Boston starters appear more conducive to accomplishing.
Williams III’s return to the starting lineup felt inevitable after he hit 25 of his first 30 shots after returning from injury and helped the Celtics post a 109 defensive rating off the bench. He entered games midway through the first quarter to restore the double big lineup and they outscored opponents, something that group hasn’t done as starters. Williams III might be best used in those five-minute spurts each quarter, setting him up for late in games.The starters, of course, matter less than the closers, and combinations obvious last year now present one of Mazzulla’s largest challenges late in 2023. Finding the right players for crunch time and maintaining trust.
“I don’t see too many similarities to last season,” Mazzulla said (via NBC Sports Boston). “I try not to make those connections. Outside of the fact that we’re a different basketball team, in a different situation with different personnel, trying to accomplish the same goal. So I just feel like regardless of what happens, we just have to fight to play our best basketball. We have to know what that is, and we’ve got to do it more times than not … we’re not gonna be perfect, but we have an identity of what we know to do when we win and we have to stick to it.”