First Impressions of Joe Mazzulla’s Celtics

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After a sunny start to the offseason the Boston Celtics faced a tumultuous end.

Injuries to Danilo Gallinari, Robert Williams, and the suspension of coach Ime Udoka overshadowed the marvelous moves made by President of Basketball Operations, Brad Stevens. All these events left players and fans with an abundance of worry and questions. Media day didn’t serve as a calming presence given that every player had no clue what the Udoka situation entailed.

However, the team since that point has quickly put the situation behind them. Joe Mazzulla’s elevation left concern in many eyes. The biggest question mark though was experience. Mazzulla spent two years as the head coach of Fairmont State. He went 43-17 in his two years there before joining Boston in 2019. Since then, he has been a well-respected assistant in the organization.

The concerns reasonable or not showed no dominion in his first win where the Celtics looked a bit different.

Pace and Fast Break Points

Pace and fast break points certainly looked to be an emphasis in game 1. The Celtics absolutely flew up the court after defensive rebounds and even 76er scores. Movement and attacking early leaves the defense in disarray.

Exhibit A:

Getting the ball up quick is good but immediately getting into actions is key. White, while being a guard, is an underrated screener and sets a pin down for Jaylen Brown. Tyrese Maxey drops and gives a cushion to Jaylen who closes the space forcing Embiid to help. Ball swings around to Tatum for a corner three.

There are many negatives to not having Robert Williams healthy, but one advantage is that every starter can initiate offense. You essentially now have four guard-like handlers in that lineup and Al Horford. With every core guy being under 30 except Al, the pace and fast break opportunities should be no fluke.

Speaking of fast breaks, the Celtics completely dominated in that area Tuesday night. They outscored Philly 24 to 2 in that department. Brown and Jayson Tatum both scored 10 points in transition combining for 83% of the team’s fast break points. Those points were also over 25% of their entire scoring output.

According to NBA.com’s team play type statistics, the Celtics ranked 28th in fast break points last season. Moreover, they were bottom 10 in fast break frequency, fast break possessions per game, and points per fast break. Celtics weren’t getting out in transition enough and when they were, the turnover frequency in these situations were the eighth highest. Despite this, the Jays both ranked top 20 in fast break points per game.

With two of the more physically skilled wings in the league and a stifling defense, scoring in transition shouldn’t be an issue they just have to get there.

Ball Security

As anyone who watched basketball last year knows, the Celtics were plagued by turnovers. Their finals run, while impressive, featured a playoff high 353 turnovers. This was 33 more than any other team. Furthermore, Tatum and Brown were top two in total playoff giveaways.

I may have given myself PTSD talking about the turnovers from last year but it’s important that it’s improved upon. Tuesday’s opener saw the Celtics turn it over only 10 times. Last season the Celtics had fewer than 10 turnovers in only eight of their 82 games. This was the second fewest games of such turnovers in the league. The new guy Malcolm Brogdon detailed how he could help the Jays by being a “calming presence” in his first Celtics interview after he was acquired. He gave us a glimpse of that in the opener.

In just 24 minutes Brogdon posted 4 assists and only one turnover. Not a spectacular number at all, but his controlled rim pressures helped Tatum get some of the easiest looks he’s got in a long time. Over the last three seasons he has logged an assist to turnover ratio of 2.86. Hopefully, he can continue this on the Celtics.

Much has been said about Marcus Smart‘s role with the addition of Brogdon, but it only helps in my opinion. It allows him to get from under the playmaking microscope he was always under last year. Quite honestly, he exceeded expectations in that role, and he can still have nights where he is the best passer. He led the team with 66 passes and 7 assists against the 76ers.

The Smart and Brogdon duo as playmakers can push this team over the top when it matters the most and valuing possessions should be a top priority.

Big Man Depth

If there is one hole in this team its the lack of center depth.

Even though Horford physically looks great I would have loved for his minutes to be cut down this year. We will need the 36-year-old healthy come playoff time but behind him is Noah Vonleh.

Even though he closed the game really strong after some early foul trouble, I’m not particularly sold on his ability to consistently impact. With that being said, it’s perfectly possible that he doesn’t need to be good every night. Playing that position by committee and going with the best matchup that night can be good if Blake Griffin and Luke Kornet can give some effective play. Grant Williams continues to be a solid small ball five option when needed. Rebounding was also thought to be a problem for the undersized C’s but if the wings and big guards can come down and board consistently it’ll all be alright.

The roles of every Celtic’s big gained weight when the news of Rob Will’s injury surfaced. I’m interested to see what big emerges as the best behind Al and if external options will be explored during the season.

Outlook

This team has serious potential to get over the hump this time but Mazzulla and the guys will have to figure out a number of things much before they reach that point.

Next Game: Friday October 21st, Vs. Miami Heat

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