Elite hoops: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Nuggets

#1 Sometimes, players get hot

The Boston Celtics saw the best versions of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Both scored at a high clip, made quick reads, and manipulated Boston’s defense. Sometimes, star players get hot, and nothing you do can throw them off. When that happens, all you can do is try to make life as difficult as possible and live with the results.

Murray hit 15 of his 21 shots. Jokic hit 14 of his 22. It’s not like they were finding easy lanes and facing a sagging defense. This might sound dismissive, and it’s not intended that way, but it is what it is at that point. You turn your attention to the role players and look to limit their impact, hoping you can outscore two star talents.

The Celtics did nullify the rest of Denver’s rotation. Aaron Gordon went 0-for-6. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went 2-of-6. Reggie Jackson was 2-of-4. Peyton Watson was 4-of-11. Michael Porter Jr found ways to get his buckets.


#2 Jaylen Brown struggled

He wasn’t awful. He just wasn’t the version of Jaylen Brown we’ve become accustomed to over the last few months. Credit to the Nuggets defense, they found ways to limit his athleticism and pressure his shot attempts. Still, it’s games like this where Brown will be judged. Against elite competition, playing on your home floor, you’ve got to find ways to make a difference.

That can be on the glass, as a cutter, being more active off the ball, or taking on a bigger role defensively. At times, Brown was a spectator in the game. That’s not all on him, though. Joe Mazzulla made multiple alterations during the game, and none of them specifically featured Brown. Nor did his teammates look to put him in better positions.

Nevertheless, this was among his worst games of the season. We know how good he is. We know what he’s capable of. Now, he needs to do it against the best of the best. There will be plenty of time for that during the postseason, though.

#3 Tatum’s scoring vanished, but he helped in other ways

Brown wasn’t the only one having a bad game. In terms of scoring, Jayson Tatum struggled, too. His perimeter shot wasn’t falling. He had trouble fighting through contact and consistently getting a finish around the rim, too. However, Tatum found other ways to make an impact. He led the game in deflections. He rebounded. He hustled on defense. And he found ways to create for others.

Here’s a solid example of how Tatum was making a difference defensively. Jokic has found a way to lose the defense and re-locate into the paint. Tatum shows some patience and waits for the pass to be made before darting over from the weak to deflect the ball and force an inbounds play, thus giving the Celtics time to reset their defense and look to get a stop.

We often overlook the little moments like these when it’s a star player. In Tatum’s case, his breakaway dunk that drew a technical foul will likely be among the primary talking points. Still, on a night when his shot wasn’t falling, and Brown was struggling too, Tatum plugged gaps elsewhere on the court.

Of course, it would have been nice if Boston’s two best players could have matched the output of Murray and Jokic. There will be other opportunities to bounce back, though.

#4 Two elite defenses

We’ve seen the Celtics rack up 50,60,70 points by halftime. Denver held them to 100 over four full quarters. The Nuggets are currently ranked as the league’s 12th-ranked defense. Boston is the second-ranked defense. Both are expected to make a big push for the NBA Finals. As such, it made sense that we saw each side raise their game and look to make a statement.

I had some specific clips I wanted to share in regards to the defensive execution, but the NBA site hasn’t released the video yet — which is why today’s takeaways are predominantly written.

Still, I liked the battles we saw. Both Mazzulla and Mike Malone tested things out. Changes were made. Counters were deployed. There’s a reason so many players had tough shooting nights. And that’s what makes Murray and Jokic’s scoring so frustrating — because they were hitting shots, you would expect them to miss.

#5 Kristaps Porzingis shone

With Brown struggling, Porzingis took over as Boston’s featured first-quarter scorer. He scored 15 points on 4-of-5 shooting and hit all his free throws. The rest of the game was a bit more of a struggle for the big man as he navigated multiple coverages. However, he ended the contest as one of Boston’s better performers and, for the most part, held his own against Nikola Jokic, who proved to be a handful for whoever was tasked with guarding him.

Still, this was a good test for the Celtics. It was elite big man versus elite big man. Both teams look to stretch the defense with their spacing, and both like to create advantages on the perimeter before punishing the gaps in the lanes.

Porzingis ran the floor well. Was a willing screener. Protected the rim. And made the most of his offensive opportunities.

#6 Gettin’ Nerdy With It: Wedge actions

One of Boston’s best weapons is getting either Tatum or Porzingis into the post. They’ve been stellar from that part of the floor this season, so it makes sense they went to one of them with the opening action of the game.

In the above clip, Brown sets a wedge screen for Porzingis after Tatum had rejected the hand-off action with Derrick White. White’s cut and turn toward the sideline caused Murray to lose track of what was happening on the weak, allowing Porzingis to get a dominant position and end the play with a powerful slam.

Here’s another wedge action, this time for Tatum to get onto the strong side and attack the mismatch — which is why Payton Pritchard was the one setting the wedge screen.

The Celtics went away from post actions as the game wore on. Denver began pre-switching some screens to negate the advantage, so Boston began creating advantages on the perimeter or looking to drive the lane more frequently.

#7 Gettin’ Nerdy With It Part 2: Slice Twirl

Just wanted to point out this play. I’m a sucker for when teams string actions together. Boston goes to a 21 reset, then runs a slice twirl action, which creates a rotation and switches before getting Tatum the ball in the post.

Good process with an unfortunate result.

In a game where both coaches are mixing things up, it’s nice to see some creativity from Mazzulla and the players. It’s little wrinkles like that that can turn the flow of a game or unlock something to attack for multiple possessions.

#8 Refs need to stop punishing dunks

Another quick thought. The rule about hanging on the rim needs to change. Dunks are one of the most entertaining things about basketball. They motivate a team. They get the crowd fired up. And they often go viral, which is great publicity for the league itself.

Punishing players for ensuring their safety and showing some emotion is illogical. The rule needs changing or removing.

#9 Derrick White

24 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block. Pretty standard night at the office for White. Once again, he found ways to plug gaps based on what the team needed. He emerged as Boston’s most reliable perimeter shooter. Pressured the rim when given an opportunity and operated in an off-ball role by dragging defenders with him on cuts.

The decision to make a v-cut on this chin action created enough space for White to get a great look at the rim. It’s small little snap decisions like that which set him apart. He reads the game at a great pace, generally makes the right decision and executes at a great level. I honestly don’t know how to keep praising him without repeating myself.

#10 This would be an amazing series

Give me a seven-game series between these two teams. The basketball on display would be electric. Both rosters have ways of attacking and countering each other. There are some of the best players in the world on the court, and the coaching staff isn’t afraid to throw things at the wall to see what sticks.

An NBA Finals series between the Celtics and Nuggets would be a battle. I can’t imagine it would be over quickly. But I do feel confident the Celtics have enough talent to overcome Denver. They lost by two points with their best two players struggling while Denver’s best two players struggled to miss.

For the record, I liked the concept of playing Jokic with a single defender. He’s too good of a passer to be sending doubles his way, and the Nuggets have their fair share of shooters and rip-through threats. Just wanted to add that in.

Looking ahead.

Got a back-to-back on the horizon. The Celtics face the Houston Rockets on Sunday and then the Dallas Mavericks on Monday. Tough stretch. It does mean we get two straight days of Celtics basketball, though. So, I’m not going to be upset with that! For now, though, I hope you have a great weekend, and I’ll be back with the takeaways on Monday — when we hopefully have more film available to dive a little deeper.

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