Opening night always sets a baseline for teams to build from,
and yesterday's matchup gave us several answers — and some more
questions — about these title contenders going forward. Here are
five key takeaways from the clash:
1. The Celtics' bench made a statement.
Boston's move to get the franchise over the championship hump
was trading for dynamic driver Malcolm
Brogdon. When I reacted to the addition this
summer, I stressed that an actualized Brogdon can change the
topography of this offense from a unit that sometimes trudged
upward into a downhill, attacking team.
After one game, Brogdon is achieving that mission. The combo
guard was almost a guaranteed paint touch whenever he started with
the ball. He finished with 16 points and shot 7-for-11 from the
floor. Brogdon had a straight-line drive from the corner that
stymied Harden and ended with an easy layup. He blew by De'Anthony
Melton for another score, and also dug into his bag a bit against
Tyrese Maxey (shown above). Brogdon shined in his role and inspired
some tremendous optimism.
He wasn't alone. After not reaching an agreement on a contract
extension in the offseason, Grant Williams balled out to the tune
of 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting last night. He drilled three
triples, including some difficult makes, and continues to improve off the
Noah Vonleh might have been the biggest eyebrow-raiser for his
screening prowess and physicality against Joel Embiid. The
Massachusetts native helped free up Boston's playmakers, and on
defense, put in an admirable effort against one of the best players
in the world. Vonleh outplayed Blake Griffin in the contest, and
appears to have locked down the backup center spot behind Al
Horford. He wasn't perfect, but he played a valiant game that sets
a solid foundation for the second unit.
2. James Harden is still a pick-and-roll
Amidst the rising crop of young guards and Harden's rocky road
over the last two seasons, we (myself included) might have
forgotten just how dominant he is as an orchestrator. The
33-year-old was in full control during the first half last night,
and even as the game slipped away, he still showed just how hard it
is to defend a player with his set of tools.
When Harden used a ball-screen, the Celtics would send their
guards over to cover a pull-up jumper and keep their screener
defender in drop coverage. The challenge, particularly against
Harden and Embiid, is that both of them have the touch to hit
mid-range jumpers and floaters. It forces a third defender to "tag"
Embiid emphatically so that the defending big man can keep them
both in range. But as the above clip shows, that leaves a shooter
open — and the Beard sees all.
Harden had a couple of passes like these that went unrewarded.
He also hit Embiid for rolling baskets and knocked down a lefty
floater with the space he received. It's still a mind-bending
puzzle to solve a Harden pick-and-roll.
3. Boston has a defensive game plan for Joel
It took some work for Embiid to get his 26 points. The all-world
center shot 8-for-12 inside the arc, but it was some of the shots
he didn't take, plus his six turnovers, that told more of the
Boston sent a double-team at Embiid whenever he was posting up
in an empty corner. It began with the opening play (more on that
later) but also included more tactical moments. Here, Tatum is the
man to come double. Brogdon gets to stay guarding the outlet pass —
an easy job because Harden barely moves off the ball. Tatum also
waits until Embiid turns into a move on the baseline; that makes
life easier for Brown and Marcus Smart, because those passes to the
weak side become incredibly difficult.
Vonleh wears the first bump from Embiid and he has nowhere to
go, leading to a turnover. The Celtics definitely built their game
plan around Embiid's isolations, but they didn't let him frazzle
their own spacing. That discipline over a full game is something
interim head coach Joe Mazzulla can hang his hat on.
4. Philadelphia has to fix its offensive flow — and its
However, these plays weren't just about Boston's defense. The
Sixers had several seriously concerning moments with their
offensive tempo. I'll defer to Nekias Duncan, who dissected two
plays in detail that summed up the frustrations:
Meanwhile, the most cringeworthy team stat for Philly was their
24-2 deficit on fast break points. I mean, they
hemorrhaged transition buckets. Boston averaged 169.2
points per 100 transition plays; per Cleaning the Glass, that would
have led the NBA by 35 points last season.
Here are three Tatum transition scores that were a product of
low effort from Harden specifically. I understand that transition
play is naturally tilted toward offenses, and that the take foul is
gone from the NBA. Still, there has to be a better fight in some of
5. Jayson Tatum may have fully arrived.
Speaking of Tatum, we have to highlight the best performance of
the night. The 24-year-old superstar was a monster last night on
both sides of the floor. He made 13 of 20 field goals, ranging from
pushing the pace in transition to some unreal, contested makes —
all while seeming perfectly in control. He was one of the most
successful individual defenders against Harden and also made timely
off-ball adjustments within Boston's scheme.
Even plays like this that won't show up on the box score were
driven by Tatum. He showed such a full command of the offense, yet
this didn't feel like a game where he was overly ball-dominant.
Tatum has typically started seasons slowly, so this type of
first-game outburst already has Celtics fans elated.