The Celtics remained the only undefeated team in the NBA on Saturday, holding off a sloppy Nets team in a 124-114 victory.
Here are the takeaways.
1. After back-to-back wins in which the starters sat for the entire fourth quarter, the Celtics won on an odd night in which the Nets never led on a Jayson Tatum 3-pointer with 8:13 remaining in the fourth quarter. Still, Brooklyn kept a stranglehold on the Celtics’ rear bumper all evening, refusing to go away despite numerous opportunities to do so, which was doubly impressive considering the Nets were on the second night of a back-to-back and overnight returned to Brooklyn. after a narrow loss to the Bulls on Friday.
The Nets – even without Ben Simmons and Cameron Johnson – were significantly tougher competition than the Pacers without Tyrese Haliburton or the full-fledged Wizards. Cam Thomas gave the Celtics fits (27 points, 11-for-24 shooting). Mikal Bridges warmed up late to keep them within striking distance. Spencer Dinwiddie posted a balanced 19-6-6 stat line. Dennis Smith Jr. is a good defender.
The Celtics picked up a road win against a decent team on a night when they weren’t their best. That’s a solid outcome.
2. Jayson Tatum – who finished with 32 points – scored his 10,000th career point in the second quarter on a truly nasty and-one. After a jump ball, Tatum found himself aligned with Thomas and turned to set up the smaller guard. Just as Smith Jr. tried to lunge and poke the ball away, Tatum anticipated and turned toward the lane. Thomas pulled his hands back, but Day’Ron Sharpe fouled Tatum as he threw a layup.
A lot of attention has been paid to Tatum’s post-ups for a reason: he puts up incredibly efficient numbers from the post, and the look adds a nice new wrinkle to his offense. But the bigger story is how Tatum has embraced physical basketball, and the way his finesse expertise and increasingly strong physique make him a monstrous offensive player.
Tatum became the youngest Celtic in history to score 10,000 points. It won’t be the last milestone he reaches in a Celtics uniform.
3. Derrick White was absent due to personal reasons probably the birth of his second child. The only other game White missed during his Celtics tenure was due to the birth of his first child Hendrix.
White’s priorities and his durability are both hugely admirable.
4. Jrue Holiday takes the occasional questionable three-pointer and finished with three turnovers on Saturday. But he was outstanding again, falling just one rebound short of a triple-double with 18 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. His quick trigger from behind the arc can also be very valuable: the defense should remain honest and committed to him. On Saturday, he went 4-for-9 – 44.4 percent from deep. That’s a punishing percentage for a team with Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis.
5. Luke Kornet played his best game of the season so far. He scored a pair of straight baskets in the second quarter when the Celtics’ offense faltered a bit (Kornet’s back-to-back baskets cut a five-point lead to one and set the stage for the aforementioned Tatum triple which gave him a five-point lead (the Celtics a lead they never relinquished).
In the third quarter, Kornet completed a pick-and-roll layup and a lob dunk, and grabbed a few nice rebounds. Then Kornet scored a crucial and-one in the fourth.
Against a small Nets team, Kornet played a crucial role and hurt them because of the attention they paid elsewhere. He finished with 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting and seven rebounds, reminding observers why the Celtics made a lot of noise during the preseason about being high on him.
6. Porzingis quietly had a nice night – 8-for-10 from the field and 1-for-2 from 3-point range on his way to 22 points to go with seven rebounds and three blocked shots. Interestingly enough, he did quite well on the perimeter game shooters after the Celtics played him primarily in drop-pick-and-roll coverage for the first four games.
On a more basic level, Porzingis also continued to punish smaller defenders in the paint, and his lone 3-pointer came from just in front of the Nets’ half-court logo. The man is very good.
7. Continuing last year’s trend, the Nets went with pick-and-rolls on Sam Hauser when he was in the game. The Celtics were largely content to allow Hauser to move on to players like Cam Thomas and Spencer Dinwiddie, and he defended them credibly even though they scored several baskets above him.
At some point, Hauser could make an All-Defense team simply because he’s getting so many high-level isolation defensive reps. Practice makes perfect.
8. We’re still not entirely sure how Jacque Vaughn avoided being thrown in the fourth after this Tatum layup.
Vaughn was furious that Tatum wasn’t whistled for a push-off, and he got right in official Natalie Sago’s face. After she whistled him for a well-deserved technical, Vaughn continued to loudly argue his case from a short distance away, never backing down.
Credit to Sago for keeping his cool, but Vaughn had to stand on the edge.
9. Al Horford’s stats don’t jump off the page (eight points, seven rebounds, three assists in the starting minutes with White out), but his sky-high plus/minus (+29) passes the eye test with flying colors. He also made three big plays in the fourth quarter, first rushing back to secure a clutch steal before scoring a tough transition layup and hitting home an alley-oop that felt more or less like the dagger .
Horford was given a technical foul for hanging off the edge of the dagger alley-oop, which seemed completely unfair. Jumping is hard on the knees. Let the 37-year-old collect his legs and land softly.
10. The Celtics look like a powerhouse. They will put their undefeated record on the line against the Timberwolves on Monday. When they return to TD Garden on Friday, they will face the Nets again in their first tournament game of the season.
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