The Celtics held off a late charge from the Clippers on Thursday, claiming a 116-110 victory to close their seven-game homestand.
Here are the takeaways.
1. Every time Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum match up with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the comparisons are impossible to ignore and a lot of fun to track. On Thursday, Brown and Tatum (58 total points, 29 apiece) outscored Leonard and George (50 total points, 26 and 24 respectively). Brown once again dominated as a mid-range scorer, while Tatum earned 10 trips to the free-throw line. The Celtics are now 11-2 when Tatum attempts 10 or more free throws.
Both teams dealt with the opposing stars similarly – allowing switches to create mismatches before doubling to get the ball out of the star’s hands and forcing the secondary players to try to make plays. The Celtics’ secondary players were better, which largely explains their win.
After the game, acting coach Damon Stoudamire – who once again filled in for Joe Mazzulla as he deals with scratched corneas in his eyes – was asked what surprised him about Tatum and Brown when he arrived in Boston.
“How humble they were,” Stoudamire said. “Both of them. I’ve been around this league a long time, I’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen a star like JT. He’s kind of a throwback. He practices, he plays. JB is the same way. So for me, being in college and recruiting a lot of these guys, I know a lot of these guys from when I was recruiting at Memphis and Arizona.
“I tell our staff … this all the time: I’ve been in a lot of organizations, you should appreciate them because it’s not like that everywhere, and people will tell you. So I just appreciate them because they make it easier for you to coach them, they allow you to coach them, and they allow you to help them get better.”
2. Would it benefit Jaylen Brown to play a little more like Kawhi Leonard offensively? Brown is a dominant mid-range scorer who gets to the rim and scores with an impressive mix of finesse and ferocity, but he has struggled from 3-point range this season – 33.1 percent overall, and 30.4 percent over his last 10 games on 9.2 attempts per game.
Leonard, meanwhile, is in the 24th percentile among all forwards in 3-point frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. He has historically been solid from deep, but he is only shooting 25 percent this year, and he only attempts 3.6 per game.
Joe Mazzulla has hammered home often that the Celtics should feel empowered to shoot good 3-pointers whenever they have them, and the Celtics’ offense has flourished as a result. Maybe the gravity Brown still commands is too valuable to sacrifice, but given how dominant he has been in almost every other facet of his game offensively this year, it almost feels like a waste.
None of this is meant to be a major criticism of Brown, who is playing some of the best basketball of his career. It’s just hard not to wonder whether he could be more appropriately utilized.
3. After yanking down 15 rebounds in 21 minutes on Tuesday, Robert Williams once again looked like himself against the Clippers. He finished with 12 points and six rebounds, but perhaps his most representative play came in the second quarter when he closed a gap from the free-throw line in the blink of an eye to block a shot, then contested a second shot (and likely forced a miss), then grabbed the rebound, then immediately got it to a ball-handler.
There certainly isn’t another player on the Celtics’ roster who can do all of that in the second half of an eight-second video, and there might not be another player in the entire league who can.
Williams also made an eyebrow-raising play in the second half when he caught the ball in the high post and whirled around Paul George dribbling to the basket, forcing George to foul him.
“I just saw an opening,” Williams said. “It’s something I’m capable of, but most importantly, anyone guarding me, they don’t expect to move. I’m more of a passer first, so I just saw an opening.”
Williams played his first minutes of the season with last year’s starting lineup – Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Tatum and Brown. Stoudamire hinted that the Celtics anticipate using that group more going forward.
“I think the thing about it is when you play two bigs, it makes you feel funny a little bit,” Stoudamire said. “Especially when with the Clippers, I think they had Batum at the 5 at one point. So it makes you feel funny, but I think that Rob makes up for a lot of stuff at the rim, and I think Al is great at staying between his man and the basket. So I was happy. We wanted to see what that looked like regardless.”
4. Of course, as we wrote earlier Thursday, it’s hard to argue with Derrick White in the starting lineup, especially when he scores 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting, buries two big 3-pointers, converts a big 3-point play down the stretch and sends a crucial layup packing with a game-sealing block.
“Derrick fights every single night,” Brown said. “He doesn’t give up or allow teams to have a basket. He’ll fight you. So we need Derrick to continue to be confident. He’s been playing well the last couple of games. Tonight I thought he played exceptional.”
5. For all of their myriad good habits, the Celtics tend to be a little too willing to try to kill the clock, and it almost cost them against the Clippers. Smart executed one of his best let-the-ball-roll plays of the season in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics seemed content to try to ride out the game after they took a double-digit lead, and the Clippers came storming back to within three before White’s block. Al Horford rejected Marcus Morris at the rim on the next possession. After trying to get cute and almost costing themselves the game, the Celtics got tough and won it.
6. Sam Hauser was 1-for-5 from the floor and 1-for-4 from 3-point range. He’s too good a shooter to continue missing like this (27.3 percent from deep over his last 15 games), but the Celtics could really use a few of his sudden 3-point barrages that turn a four-point game into a 14-point one over a two-minute stretch. Hauser does a lot of little things and brings some value to the floor even when he’s shooting poorly, but let’s be realistic: The Celtics need him to make 3-pointers. He transforms the Celtics when he does.
7. Elsewhere in the NBA, former Celtic Romeo Langford scored a career-high 23 points as the Spurs handed the Knicks a brutal loss to the stomach, and Aaron Nesmith did this.
Once again, the Celtics don’t really miss either player – they acquired White and Malcolm Brogdon by dealing them. Still, it’s nice to see both Langford and Nesmith adding value.
8. The Celtics close the calendar year of 2022 with a 60-22 record. their best winning percentage in a calendar year since 2008. After dropping three straight games to start their seven-game homestand, they won the next four to salvage an above .500 record over that span. On Sunday, they open a four-game road trip against the Nuggets in Denver.
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