Don't ask me to explain it, but for whatever reason the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics always play each other tough. Maybe it's matchups, maybe it's playstyle, but if there was one thing I was certain of in a game between two teams that have been playing some pretty good basketball as of late it was that last night's showdown was going to be stressful as hell. Then I saw DeRozan start 5-5 or some bullshit and it confirmed it for me.
There are only three teams in the entire league who have beaten the Celtics twice this season, and two of them didn't need an OT period. One of those teams is of course the Bulls, whose 114.8 points against the Celts ranks among the highest of any opponent. Whether it's DeRozan from the midrange or Vucevic from everyone, this Bulls team goes up a few levels whenever these two teams face off. With Smart sitting out due to injury, the biggest question was what Joe would do to counter the size of CHI.
His answer was something that I think we all have been asking for.
As expected, this game was another battle. There may be some out there that are annoyed by this, but I'm the opposite. I welcome the challenge. I want the Celts to have to prove they can execute in high pressure situations. That's what the regular season is for, get the reps in now so you're prepared for when you see it in the Spring.
I felt the same way after the SA win. Win ugly, win by a blowout, I do not care in the slightest. Just win. I find it to be a positive that when the Celts are challenged they find ways to positively respond. Guys step up, they play the right way as a team, they lock in when they need to, these are all things that will serve them well in the long run.
Now at the midway point of their season, the Celts find themselves in the same position they were in when the year started. They're the best team in the NBA. Last night's win only further solidified what we already knew, so let's talk about it.
- It's really hard for me to think of a player who the second he steps on the floor he immediately makes a positive impact on both ends of the floor. I'm not talking about every once in a while or every other game. I'm talking every single time.
You know who fits that mold?
In his first start of the year, I think it's fair to say we're watching the same old Rob. The one who strikes the fear of God into opposing players on the defensive end and the one who is the ultimate weapon on the offensive end. You watch Rob play and the best way I can describe it is you feel his minutes through your television. His impact is palpable and it doesn't even always have to be plays in which he's the one who finishes it.
Back with the two big lineup, it was so nice to see this play back in our lives
This was literally their first basket of the game, and it was a perfect example of that "safety valve" option Rob provides. Teams are going to have to rotate to the driver in these scenarios, and there is no weakside defender in the NBA that can jump with Rob. That's why the Lob To Rob is the most unstoppable play in basketball. It's a simple play/pass, but it's effective. This is an element the Celts don't really have when they go 5 out. Bringing Rob into the starting lineup unlocks that play.
But we also saw Rob's value by simply being the screener/roll threat. Take this Tatum jumper for example
Nothing crazy, just a down screen for Tatum in the corner to get him an open look. Here's why it's a double edged sword for defenses and why Rob helps makes this offense so great. At this moment, what do the Bulls do?
Vucevic can't worry about Rob, because then Tatum has a wide open lane. If both Vuc and Williams focus on Tatum, the pass to Rob is right there. Rob has his own level of offensive gravity and that's why the two man game with Tatum is going to be so crucial. Vuc never really fully commits to Tatum, and he buries the wide open jumper in his eyeball. That's more Rob than it is Tatum.
Rob's final line ended 6/7/2/0/2 on 3-4 shooting in his 22 minutes, which is fine by me in his first start of the year. His energy was contagious, and it just felt nice to see him with the normal starters again. Who knows if Joe keeps this rolling, but nothing we saw last night suggests that Rob isn't ready to reassume his old role. Just watch his minutes, that's all that matters.
- You hear a lot in basketball that a player only needs to see one drop in order to get it going, and I can't think of a player that is more accurate of than Jayson Tatum. If he sees his first few shots (especially if they're 3PA) go in, watch out. I've seen enough Tatum performances to know what comes next, and it looks a whole lot like this
In a game you needed, the MVP hopeful did MVP shit. He was efficient from the floor at 10-21 (4-11). He was tied for the team lead in rebounds, had the team lead in assists, only turned it over once, and in the biggest moments of the game he loved and trusted his teammate. That last part might be the most important thing we saw from Tatum's night if we're being honest. If the superstar is going to love and trust in the biggest moments of the game, so is everyone else.
When Tatum is engaged like this on both ends of the floor like he was in this game, there are few talents in the league like him. When Patrick Williams, DeRozan, and LaVine combine for 8 total points against Tatum and then on the other end he's giving you an efficient 32, I'm not sure what the other team does. The reason Tatum is in the MVP discussion isn't just the fact that he's an elite offensive player, it's the fact that he plays both ends at an All NBA level. Again, when your best player buys in and plays like this, it's contagious. That's the role of the best player. Set the tone, watch everyone else follow.
- I don't want to be dramatic, but we may have witnessed the best game of Grant's season
Who was that guy! I'll tell you who that was. That's a player who is worth $16M a year. We don't always get this version of Grant, but man when the Celts do they go up a few levels. A confident Grant is the best Grant, the one where he's not hesitant and spends more time thinking than playing. That guy kinda stinks.
Last night's Grant? The one who was attacking closeouts like a guard and was making play after play off the dribble? That's an element of Grant's game that simply did not exist last season. Grant took 15 FGA last night which was the most he's taken ALL SEASON. When second unit guys like him and Brogdon come in the game, they have to be aggressive. Play within the offense, but don't be scared out there. Impose your will and good things will happen.
That's how I would describe Grant's night. He imposed his will. By far the best 2nd unit player in this game, the Celts don't win without it.
- Let me be perfectly clear about something if that's alright with you.
I will die for Al Horford.
In the biggest possession of the game, this was the love and trust from Tatum I was talking about. Al had been 1-4 from three in this game before that shot, but nobody cared. They made the right basketball play and the Basketball Gods rewarded everyone. It should be no surprise that Al made this look considering he's THE BEST CORNER SHOOTER IN THE NBA
and his 8/7/5/1/1 on 3-6 (2-5) in his 33 minutes was about a solid as I've seen Al play in weeks. I love when he's in the double big role and he can assume more of a passing role, I have no problem with the fact that he's turned into a perimeter player offensively in an effort to save his body, because when Al is fresh and ready to roll, the Celts are nearly unstoppable. He's that important to what they do.
At the start of the year I was of the mindset that given his age, whatever Al gives you is a bonus. There are going to be ups and downs with him as the year goes on because unfortunately he's old as shit, but for the most part Al's been great. I thought his defense on Vucevic was as good as anyone has played Vuc in these 4 matchups, and Al looked springy (?) in this game which is always nice to see.
- In the losses to the Bulls, we saw a common theme. They got crushed on the glass, they got crushed in the paint, and they turned it over like crazy.
Last night? The Celts won the rebounding battle 50-42. They won the points in the paint battle 44-42. They only turned the ball over 9 times.
Taking care of these "small" areas are the little things that can change a game. The only area the Celts lost really was 2nd chance points (10-6), but they won the fastbreak point battle 11-4 so whatever. To also go 20-21 from the FT line was the icing on the cake
Oh, and 25 assists weren't too shabby either. The ball movement was tremendous, with 4 of the 5 starters finishing with 3 AST and 5 total players finishing with at least 3.
- Much like Grant, I thought Malcolm Brogdon was equally as aggressive offensively and did a good job of filling his role. They needed his 11 points, his 7 assists and 2 TOs is exactly what I expect, and it's just nice to see him not be afraid out there. I no longer get the sense that Brogdon is doubting himself or his ability, and it's make a world of difference for him over the last 3-4 games. He and Grant are so important to this team on that second unit, my hope is that he keeps this level of play up.
- It's getting a little ridiculous how often we're seeing Derrick White block shots at the rim. We're approaching every game levels, which is insane
A little bit of everything in Derrick's 8/5/4/0/1 in his 30 minutes, this was another one of those ultimate glue guy performances. Didn't make a 3PA which was a bummer, but White's paint game is thriving right now. He's so much more confident in his floater, I don't care what he does as long as he continues to attack the paint since only good things happen when he does. His team high +21 wasn't an accident.
- Late game execution will always be a concern for me. I've been burned too many times in the past for it not to be. Well, down the stretch of the 4th quarter with the game slipping away, the Celts found ways to execute on both ends. That's probably the biggest takeaway from this win, and while it sucks that DeRozan got hurt, Zach LaVine more than made up for it in that fouth quarter.
The fact that the Celts didn't fully let go of the rope there is notable because that tends to be their M.O when shit starts to go south and a guy goes nuclear against them down the stretch.
- It's great to see the Celts hold a team to under 100, especially on a night where they didn't shoot all that well. That tells me they didn't let their offense impact their defense which is something I think we ALL want. When you can't break triple digits against this team, you're not going to win no matter how many 3PA the Celts miss.
- Not the best Jaylen performance I've ever seen. I can't remember too many times we've seen him go 0-8 from three and 7-21 overall. Add in some 4 TOs and offensively this was one of Jaylen's worst outings of the year. The good news is he still found a way to make an impact defensively, and I never wanted Jaylen to stop shooting despite his struggles because he took good looks, I just need some better execution.
- Things had been better lately, but the Celts had another stinker from behind the arc, this time finishing 11-41 (26.8%). As is usually the case when this shit happens, it was more a matter of just missing every open or wide open look the Celts had.
They finished 4-20 on "open" looks and 6-17 on "wide open" looks. That's a cool 10-37 on either open or wide open looks (28%). That's very bad.
Some might say the Celts should have stopped taking threes, but given what we saw in the 4th quarter you can see why that should never be the strategy. Mazzulla Ball works, it generates great looks. It's just on the players to not fucking shoot below 30% on open shots.
- The entire world knows DeMar DeRozan is the best midrange jump shooter not named Kevin Durant. He's insane from that zone and has already burned the Celts multiple times with this shot. So to see him come out and go 5-5 with 3 of them being middies was very annoying. The worst part is the Celts even played great defense on some of them and it didn't matter. Maybe there's nothing you can truly do to limit DeRozan from getting to his spots and still hitting the shots even if contested, but I didn't really love how they defended him prior to his injury.
- Only 3 minutes for Payton Pritchard was also a bummer. With no Smart, I think we all figured Payton would get some legit run, especially because it's not like Sam Hauser was any better in his 12 minutes. This has to be brutal for Payton mentally that he can't even see the floor when a guard is out, so I just hope he's able to stay locked in and ready.
Given his season last year, I definitely feel for him though.
- I am legit asking what on earth Jayson Tatum has to do to get the landing space call on his 3PA. I watch the NBA every single night, and I'd say every player in the league not named Jayson Tatum gets this call about 99.9% of the time
I'm sorry, this is as clear as you can get. This is a landing space foul. I mean look at where Vuc's foot is! For this play to happen right in front of Zach Zarba's face and for him to do nothing is a disgrace.
Does Tatum have to get hurt in order for this to change? I seriously do not understand it. This missed call was the 4th or 5th one of the season ALREADY for Tatum when it comes to the landing space foul. I don't care that Zarba admitted he missed it. How about you don't miss it considering it happened right in front of your fucking face?
- Zach LaVine's 4th quarter was some of the most terrifying shit I've ever seen. It didn't matter what the defense did, that man was as locked in as humanly possible. A total of 15 points on 6-9 (3-5) in his 12 minutes, it felt like every time he let the ball go it was going in. He single handedly almost stole this game for the Bulls for crying out loud. Up 12 heading into the final frame things should have have gotten that close, but sometimes a guy goes nuclear.
Happy it all it worked out in the end, but man I didn't need the stress if we're being honest.
Now winners of 3 in a row, the Celts welcome the Pelicans to town tomorrow night and look to get this streak up to 4. Zion won't play and then Durant will miss Thursday, so the Celts have another opportunity to start and build some separation. They're starting to build some momentum, so I'd really appreciate it if they didn't immediately take some steps backwards. We are now entering the second half of their season, and the hope is it's just as good as the first if not better.