TORONTO — Joe Mazzulla wanted the Boston Celtics to pull through the uneasiness Friday night.
Mazzulla did not believe his team had its usual sharpness against the Toronto Raptors. And he wanted his players to learn from the problems. In what has been a charmed start to the season, he thought, they would need to come through for once without their best effort.
“It was the first time all year where we just weren’t the best version of ourselves,” Mazzulla said.
The Celtics didn’t have their “extra gear,” as Derrick White described it. They didn’t shoot the ball well from outside the arc. They started the first quarter by allowing a parade of layups, then gave up a big halftime lead during an ugly third quarter. They couldn’t stop Pascal Siakam from putting together a huge second half. They fell behind late in the fourth quarter but pulled out a 108-105 win by executing with precision down the stretch.
“I wanted us to just feel all the emotions,” Mazzulla said. “Every timeout, that’s all we talked about. ‘We’re not playing great, but we’re still in it. Can we chip away at it? Can we get a couple stops?’”
Though Mazzulla considered it “one of (the Celtics’) lesser performances,” he liked how his team managed parts of the game to stay close before closing out the Raptors late in the fourth quarter. With 26.8 seconds left, White drilled a 3-pointer from Jrue Holiday that pushed Boston ahead by 3 points and ultimately stood as the game-winning bucket. Mazzulla would have preferred better timing for a 2-for-1 opportunity on the play, but thought the Celtics “couldn’t have gotten a better shot than that.” Even on an off night, the coach believed his team found value in an ugly win.
“We were just able to learn a lot of things,” Mazzulla said, “and simulate a lot of things that we hadn’t been able to simulate yet.”
The Celtics normally involve Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown prominently during late-game offense. But with the Raptors switching one through five, Mazzulla called for Holiday and Kristaps Porziņģis to take charge of the action late in the fourth quarter. After a putback bucket put Toronto ahead 103-101 with a little more than a minute left, the Celtics went to a Holiday-Porziņģis pick-and-roll.
The decision had nothing to do with Tatum’s 8-for-22 shooting performance. Holiday had Dennis Schröder defending him. The Celtics wanted Porziņģis to pick on Schröder when the Raptors switched the action.
“Of course we want to get the ball in JB and JT’s hands, but if we have something else to go to, boom, put smaller guards in the pick-and-roll and see what they do,” Porziņģis said. “And if they switch (a smaller player onto Porziņģis), we can make them pay there. Or if they switch and have a five on one of these guys (Boston’s perimeter players), we’re gonna make them pay. So it’s just more options, more weapons, and we took advantage of that tonight.”
As soon as the Raptors switched Schröder onto Porziņģis, Holiday took one dribble backward to create a better passing angle and lobbed a pass to Porziņģis in the post. The 7-foot-3 big man capitalized on the severe mismatch by swishing a short jump shot over the top of Schröder’s head.
The positive for Boston: more options to go to late. Went with Tatum, went with Brown then went to Jrue/Porzingis P&R. Switch on the first one and KP scores on Schroder in the post. Next time Jrue rejects, draws help and kicks to White for 3. pic.twitter.com/vQQJyQrDjv
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) November 18, 2023
“Success looks different (on certain nights),” Mazzulla said. “And tonight it was like, ‘How can we attack the matchup?’ And it was Jrue and KP pick-and-roll when we needed it most.’”
After the Celtics forced a Schröder miss on the ensuing Toronto possession, Tatum grabbed the rebound. With an outlet pass to Holiday, Tatum put the Boston offense into somebody else’s hands. The Celtics ran the same play again, but, perhaps because he was looking for a 2-for-1 opportunity, Holiday handled it a little differently. He rejected the screen and attacked Schröder in the post, forcing the Raptors to send a double team. When Holiday saw the extra attention coming his way, he fired a pass to White in the opposite corner for the go-ahead 3-pointer.
3’S PLEASE 🎯🎯🎯 pic.twitter.com/nBNVwvTzHJ
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 18, 2023
“Jrue, he’s tough to guard down there,” White said. “And he did a great job of drawing two. JB, it was a great cut, which Siakam had to take. And Jrue made a good pass and I just knocked it down. So shout out to JB and to Jrue, honestly.”
Tatum handed Holiday the keys. Brown made the cut to help free White. As Porziņģis detailed why the Celtics ran plays for him and Holiday in crunchtime, Brown sat next to the center nodding his head.
“And it says a lot about Jaylen and Jayson, it says a lot about our team,” Mazzulla said. “And you have Jrue, KP and D-White bring us home. So that’s going to happen. We’re going to need all those guys.”
Everyone contributed late.
“Jrue dives on the floor for a loose ball,” Mazzulla said. “JB gets a blockout on a missed free throw. JB and JT stay spaced and Jrue and KP go two-man game for a stretch.”
Winning the math battle
The Celtics’ opening possession Friday night included three 3-point attempts, all misses. They grabbed offensive rebounds after the first two bricks but could not convert either of the extra attempts. And the shots were all open.
White still misfired. Tatum followed suit. Holiday did the same. Though the individual misses didn’t help matters, the math of basketball eventually helped lead the Celtics to the win. They took five more shots than the Raptors. They attempted 13 more 3-pointers than the Raptors. They committed fewer turnovers than the Raptors (13-10) and racked up more offensive rebounds (8-5). All of it helped the Celtics prevail on a night they shot just 16-for-46 (34.8 percent) from behind the arc.
“Just understanding that that’s the process towards winning,” Mazzulla said. “The offensive rebounding. Keeping guys off the free-throw line. I’m not sure what the free-throw rate tonight was, I haven’t seen the four factors yet. But just our ability to control the shot margin and keep it close is huge for us. And our guys have really bought into that.”
Mazzulla often highlights the importance of the “margins.” He emphasizes the Celtics need to take more shots than their opponents and fire more 3-pointers. How do they do that? By winning the fight on the offensive glass. By committing fewer turnovers than their opponents. By producing the types of shots that will, over the long run, swing the odds to their side. In Toronto, that helped the Celtics stay close enough until they were able to seize the game late.
“I think we just kept playing all the way through,” said Brown, who suffered a potential groin injury while slipping on Toronto’s In-Season Tournament court. “I think we kind of sucked tonight. We didn’t play our best, but we figured out how to win anyway. We didn’t make a lot of shots. Defensively we let them score a lot in transition. We knew before the game they were going to try to push us more in transition and we let them get a lot of transition points tonight. We didn’t play our best game, but we still found a way to win.”
Not every win will be perfect. Mazzulla believed this one, as disjointed as it was, produced important lessons.
“The last two minutes, we controlled it,” Mazzulla said. “We didn’t get the 2-for-1 at the end of the game, but we executed and got a really good shot and then we executed our philosophy on fouling (while) up 5 (points) and up 3 (points). So just a great game where we were fortunate enough to come out with a win, but we were able to learn a lot and feel a lot of the things that we hadn’t felt yet as a team.”
(Photo of Jrue Holiday and Jalen McDaniels: Cole Burston / Getty Images)