The Celtics were without Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis on Sunday, but they pulled out a 113-103 victory over the Hawks.
Here are the takeaways.
1. After the game, Joe Mazzulla told reporters he and Jaylen Brown shared a moment watching Al Horford come down with a difficult offensive rebound with the Celtics leading 103-94 late in the fourth quarter – a shared appreciation for the rock-solid veteran who has played a pivotal role in hundreds of Celtics victories over the last seven years.
“We both just looked at each other, and it was like, ‘How lucky we are to have this guy?’” Mazzulla said.
The Celtics are indeed very lucky to have Horford, especially on a Sunday in November with Kristaps Porzingis sidelined for at least a week due to a calf strain. Horford stepped back into his accustomed role as a starter and scored just six points, but he pulled down 15 rebounds – three of which were offensive – and he dished out three assists.
In his prime, Horford could dominate in the paint, and he still can take advantage of a mismatch if the opportunity presents itself, but he has seamlessly turned himself into a weapon around the 3-point line capable of pulling opposing bigs away from the hoop, shooting at a high level, moving the ball moving when the Celtics swing it and making hustle plays that fire his teammates up.
“It just gives us so much energy,” Tatum said when asked about Horford’s late offensive rebound. “We get so excited when he does those things. He ran from the opposite corner over three guys and got the opposite rebound and gave us another opportunity to score.
“That’s contagious. The crowd feeds off of that, we feed off of that. He’s the guy on our team – everybody loves him and respects him. Night in and night out, he does things like that, that we can’t say thank you enough for.”
2. Jaylen Brown has had a few spectacular moments, but his poster dunk against Clint Capela might have been the best play of the year so far by any Celtics player.
First Brown nearly made Trae Young lose a shoe with a nasty crossover. Then he elevated against a shot-blocker in Capela and mashed home the one-handed slam.
“Any time I have the opportunity when I see a lane and it’s the time for me to be aggressive, I’ll take it,” Brown said. “And it’s led to some highlights, but I’m looking forward to continuing to finish plays like that, but also balancing out when to make the right reads, when to make the right plays, keeping the turnovers down, and also maintaining the same aggression.”
Brown finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
3. Jayson Tatum had a very productive game, but also an uncharacteristically sloppy one. He scored 34 points on 25 shots and tallied nine rebounds and four assists, but he finished with six (!) turnovers, shot 5-for-13 from behind the arc (which is fine in the aggregate at 38.5 percent but also is just a lot of missed 3-pointers in one game) and missed three of his 10 free throws.
Still, Tatum is a nightmare matchup for the Hawks. They have few answers for him 1-on-1 and far too many exploitable mismatches at any given time if the Celtics run their star forward through pick-and-rolls. If these teams meet again in the postseason, we have a generally decent idea of what to expect.
4. Derrick White was quietly +29 on a night when the Celtics won by 10. His box score won’t pop other than assists (11) and he was off from 3-point range, but like Horford, he was rock solid on both ends on a night when the Celtics didn’t have much depth at his position.
5. The Celtics’ starters have probably been able to sit late if they hadn’t given up so many 3-pointers. Bogdan Bogdanovic made his first six 3-point attempts and finished 7-for-10 from deep, while De’Andre Hunter shot 5-for-11 from outside. Trae Young, who scored 33 points overall, finished 6-for-16. As a team, the Hawks went 19-for-53 which isn’t elite (35.8 percent) but did significantly outpace the Celtics at 13-for-47 (27.7 percent).
The biggest issue appeared to be the Celtics’ drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, which allowed multiple Hawks players to get free looks in the second half. Mazzulla, however, said after the game that the Celtics sent defenders over the screen in the pick-and-roll in the first half, and they didn’t execute their adjustment well in the second half when they tried to send the ball-handler away from the screen.
“The first adjustment is to do the second adjustment right, and not just skip the adjustment,” Mazzulla said. “We weren’t great in doing what the second adjustment was, which is something that we’re going to have to go to against certain teams. And at the same time, you can’t overreact to their pick-and-roll threes. It’s the other stuff that kills you.
“I see why you guys [in the media] are saying that,” Mazzulla added. “But as I’m looking at it, it’s like yes, these 3-pointers look like clean looks, but we’ve been un-solid in so much other areas that if you then adjust, you’re not hanging on to anything.”
6. After a strong preseason followed by a foot injury, Neemias Queta made a case for additional minutes with seven points and 10 rebounds off the bench in 15 minutes. He pulled down six offensive boards, some of which (admittedly) were due to his own smoked layups. Still, Queta is a big body who made a strong case that he could credibly play 10-15 minutes on a given night.
“He was big for us tonight, the energy that he brought off the bench,” Tatum said. “I give a lot of credit to those guys, the stay-ready group. They work, they worked their butts off, and it’s tough not knowing when your number is going to get called, but just having to be prepared when it does. Tonight, he helped us win the game.”
Dalano Banton, meanwhile, started in place of Jrue Holiday (which allowed the Celtics to keep their bench rotations together). Banton posted eight points and five rebounds.
“I thought Dalano’s defensive instincts and his defense was really good,” Mazzulla said. “I thought he made some good plays in the seams. He’s got really good feel for the game.”
7. Late in the game, Horford had a funny moment when he swatted a shot into the front row … straight to his eldest son, Ean.
On the NBC Sports Boston broadcast, Brian Scalabrine said he coached Ean and called him the next Victor Wembanyama. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the son of a 6-foot-10 five-time NBA All-Star might have some potential as a hooper.
8. The Hawks’ defense remains deeply uninspiring.
The Hawks have the NBA’s second-best offense, per Cleaning the Glass, but they have the 23rd-best defense. That combination has gotten the Hawks to the first round of the playoffs and no further in each of the last two years, and it’s hard to imagine that the formula will change much in the near future.
9. Things are not going particularly well for an old friend in Memphis.
The Grizzlies went on a run after this speech but were blown out 119-97 by the Timberwolves. They are now 3-13.
10. And finally, the Celtics need a little bit of luck to stay alive in the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament on Tuesday when they take on the Bulls. The most likely scenario would be one where the Nets beat the Raptors (by a little) and the Celtics beat the Bulls (by a lot).
Tatum endorses the concept of the in-season tournament as a whole.
“I know Tuesday is complicated,” Tatum said. “There’s a million things that can happen so that [expletive] is a little tricky, but I think it’s been great. It gives guys something to look forward to early in the season. And yeah, I guess we’ll see what happens on Tuesday.”
Sign up for Celtics updates🏀
Get breaking news and analysis delivered to your inbox during basketball season.