Discover more from Celtics Film Room
I’m Harden-ly Impressed.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The Boston Celtics shit the bed last night. In a game that didn’t include Joel Embiid and saw Jayson Tatum go off for 39 points, the Celtics somehow found a way to lose the game down the stretch. It feels like the lessons of last year weren’t heeded to the extent that the team has led us to believe over the past few months.
It’s worth remembering that this was one loss in a best-of-seven series. Yet even then, it was a loss that shouldn't have happened, on Boston’s homecourt, in front of a packed TD Garden. These types of losses are becoming a pattern — one which no one seems to have an answer for.
Anyway, as I said yesterday, I’m going to be trialing a new format for this week, so let’s dive right in.
🍕Without Embiid patrolling the paint, the Celtics did exactly what you would expect: pressured the rim and took full advantage of the Philadelphia 76ers’ lack of rim protection. Of their 115 points, 66 of them came in the paint, with one additional bucket coming from mid-range, courtesy of Malcolm Brogdon.
🍕Jaylen Brown had a peculiar game. He dropped three of his four attempts in the first quarter, didn’t get a shot in the second, went o-of-1 in the third, and then 2-of-2 in the fourth. Simply put, that’s not good enough. Brown is the second star on this Celtics roster, and under no circumstances should he take one shot over two quarters and only put up two attempts in the fourth. Brown needs to be more aggressive in demanding the ball during those situations, and the Celtics need to be more deliberate in running actions to feature him on the offensive end. Don’t get me wrong, you should always feed the hot hand, which in this case was Tatum, but that doesn’t mean you limit another All-Star’s ability to carry some of the load. There is no room for a passive approach to the game during the playoffs, and considering the success the Celtics’ core rotation has had in recent years, you would think they know that by now.
🍕Derrick White had a night to forget. In fairness, he does have a tough assignment on defense, as Tyrese Maxey is a handful, especially when he plays like he did last night. However, his struggles weren’t just on one side of the floor. White went 1-of-5 from the field, with four of those attempts coming from deep, and only chipped in 3 assists which is low considering his recent production. In fairness, White did do a decent job of keeping Maxey quiet in terms of individual performance, spending 6:21 matched up with him and holding him to 2-of-4 shooting from the field and 1-of-3 from deep — however, during those minutes, the Sixers, as a unit, racked up 36 points. The Celtics need more from White, who was emerging as a genuine third star on the roster throughout the final two months of the regular season and at the start of the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks.
🍕He might not have been dealing with Embiid, but Al Horford had a solid game on defense, moving his feet well, contesting shots, switching when required, and registering 3 blocks for his troubles. We all saw some solid short-roll creation from him, along with him being more involved in the offensive system compared to what we saw in the latter games against the Hawks. A sterner test awaits for Horford when Embiid returns, but you can only deal with what’s directly in front of you.
🍕Last season, the offensive limitations of Matisse Thybulle counteracted his defensive upside. So, when the Sixers acquired De’Anthony Melton this past summer, it was a surefire win for them, as they upgraded their bench with one of the better defensive guards who also has an offensive bag he can tap into. We saw both the defense and offense on show last night. However, Malcolm Brogdon is a superior talent, and throughout the course of the series, the battle of the ‘bench guards’ should end in Boston’s favor; after all, only one of these teams has the reigning Sixth Man of the Year on their roster.
🍕Without Embiid in the rotation, I can see the logic in not playing Grant Williams too much. However, there is a world where he could have ‘done a job’ against Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker (although he was a non-factor anyway). Still, for the minutes Williams was on the court, it felt like the Sixers were looking to hunt him for mismatches with Harden, so limiting his playing time seems fair. I just have to wonder whether finding him in the corner for some open catch-and-shoot looks could have swung momentum during the Sixers’ runs late in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.
🍕Tatum was the version of himself we saw during the early months of the season. Attacking the rim, picking his shots, and, at times, looking unstoppable. Playoff Tatum, when he’s in full flow, is so much fun to watch and root for, and that was definitely the case in this game.
🍕We’ll go into this deeper in a moment, but James Harden…take a bow!
Does Vegas have a hot tub time machine?
Coming into this series, there was no debate regarding which team had the best player. However, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t rank Tatum and Brown as the second and third-best talents in the series, with Harden coming in fourth. Yet, in the opening game, Harden rolled back the years to put on a clinic, flashing the dominance that saw him named the league MVP back in 2018.
Despite being 33, Harden played almost the entire game, registering 39 minutes of game time — the most of anyone on his team, and shouldered the responsibility of Philly’s offense with the cool, collected manner of a veteran who has been here before countless times.
Watch this clip and tell me this doesn’t remind you of Prime Harden. The man that terrorized defenses during his tenure with the Houston Rockets. The man who led the NBA in scoring for three straight seasons between 2018 and 2020. The top 75 of All-Time Harden (according to the NBA’s 75th-anniversary selection.)
I said on the series preview episode of the Green With Envy podcast Harden was the best guard in this series, but Boston had two players who were better than him. Well, on Sunday night, that wasn’t true. Harden dominated. He was the best player on the floor and controlled everything the Sixers did well offensively. Boston will need to find a way to limit the aging superstar in the second game if they want to get back into this series, and they better start manifesting that he isn’t playing at this same level once Embiid returns — because then, the Celtics best two players are the third and fourth best in the series, and that’s unthinkable.
Of course, most of what I’m writing is an overreaction.
As Brad Stevens would say, ‘Water finds its level.’ And I sincerely doubt that Harden can sustain that level of performance for a full series. Furthermore, if/when Embiid returns to the court, Harden won’t be taking as many shots and will fall back into his role as the initiator-in-chief, which will pose a whole new set of problems, but one the Celtics’ perimeter defense is better equipped to deal with.
In Sunday’s game, Harden had a usage rate of 44.6%, and his shot profile looked like this.
6% of his attempts came at the rim - he converted all of those looks.
50% came in the mid-range, dropping 57% of them.
44% came from deep, he shot 50%.
As I said, that type of production, from this version of Harden, seems unsustainable, especially with such a heavy offensive burden on an aging body. Yet, there’s no denying the talent is still there, and the Celtics were caught off guard by the manner in which he approached the game and the new/old level he found when put back in a position to lead an offense. Harden is one of the best guards in the league and one of the best passers too, but he is not seen as the generational scorer he once was, but that doesn’t mean you should gameplan in case he taps back into force on a night where his MVP-caliber running mate is missing from the rotation.
And then there is Brown, who wilted and deferred because, let’s face it, if he had played to his usual high standards, this newsletter would look very different, as would Celtics fan’s reactions across social media. One bad game does not make a series. Just like one throw-back game does not signal the rebirth of a former superstar.
Still, I need to know what Harden got up to in Vegas because the dude came back ready to ball, looking limber as hell, and putting guys on skates with his stepbacks, quick stops, and pound dribbles.
Plays of the day
🎥 Screen the screener, give-and-go (STS G’N’G)
🏀 A screening action involving both Tatum and Brown to open the game, the Celtics went to a screen-the-screen, with Tatum setting a wide pindown for Brown before Brown curled the screen to screen for Tatum. From there, Smart feeds Tatum; Tatum doesn’t like how tight PJ Tucker is defending him, gives it back to Smart, jukes, face cuts, receives the pass in the lane for the open finish. Not a bad way to start the game.
🎬SLOB Iverson Spread
🏀 Sideline out-of-bounds play (SLOB). Jayson Tatum inbounds the ball, and then Iverson cuts to the weakside wing. Al Horford and Jaylen Brown run a spread pick-and-roll. JB creates space with the jab step and nails the three.
🏀 Wide pindown from Brogdon, Tatum curls, Horford initiates the DHO around inline with the elbow (but on the perimeter). A staple action under Ime Udoka. Interestingly, the Sixers don’t switch this action and allow Tobias Harris to chase Tatum over the screens.
🎬Al Horford doing Al Horford Things
The 45 drift from Horford here, to be available for the pocket pass around the nail, and the awareness to spot Smart’s baseline cut is exactly why Al Horford is so important to this team. In a moment where the Celtics needed a big bucket, Horford found a way to be a connector, easing the pressure on Tatum while allowing Smart to make the big play — which is an area he thrives.
🎙️“I got to be better at play calling and getting us into a spacing quicker,” Joe Mazzulla said.
🎙️“I didn’t put them in position to win the game,” Mazzulla told Abby Chin of NBC Sports Boston.
🎙️“I think my biggest things were…They’re forcing you left; you can go left, you work on it every day, take the shots that they’re giving you,” Maxey said on breaking his cold slump against the Celtics.
🎙️“We are here to win. Even after this game, I told the guys, don’t get too happy. We’re even keel. We’re coming here to get game two as well. That’s the mindset we have as a unit. Whether Joel comes back or not, we’ll be ready to go,” James Harden said.
🎙️"I think we just allow guys to be a little too comfortable at times…We definitely can be better. Sometimes we give up too many offensive rebounds, and that hurts us, second and third chances opportunities. I think it’s all about picking up our pressure and trying to make people uncomfortable. Because when people are comfortable, you know, everybody’s talented, and they just feel a little bit more free out there.” Tatum said.
🎙️"Honestly, we didn’t get stops all night long. That’s really the answer. We didn’t get the stops we needed. We played good initial defense and then have some type of breakdown for a layup or open three. And then I don’t think we came out in the second half the right way, came out, played a little bit sloppy, a few turnovers,” Brogdon said.
🎙️“That’s the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team. We have a bunch of street fighters, and they believe,” Doc Rivers said.
That’s all for today; please let me know what you think of this format and if you would like me to keep this style moving forwards. Or if you prefer the longer ‘article’ type approach.