How one spectacular play in Toronto showcased Celtics’ growth this season

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You’ve seen the play from the Raptors game by now and you know exactly which one. The Jrue Holiday spin. The Derrick White kick-out. The Jayson Tatum swish. It was as graceful as it was hostile, the perfect basketball sequence.

It shows the growth of everything from Joe Mazzulla’s offensive theory to each player’s career evolution. This was the play that summarized everything the Celtics have been working toward and what they want to become.

Whether you were watching live, saw it on your phone, or just heard someone yelling about it at Dunks the next day, this was the play that blew everyone away.

The frenetic energy of this angle captures the essence of why this team is operating so well. The Celtics aren’t afraid to get bunched up anymore. Robert Williams was basically the one guy who would lurk behind the basket in the dunker spot last year, as the Celtics wanted to space out as much as they could. So the offense would usually either kick it out to a shooter or drop it off to Williams. It was hard to beat because of all the talent, yet it was easier to solve.

But they had so many drive-and-kicks last year, so what makes this one distinct? How does it fit into how this team is catching up to the forefront of the NBA curve? And why are the Celtics looking like a paradox for defenses across the league?

The spacing

Versatility has been the buzzword for years, but it’s reaching a different level this season. Guards are playing like bigs, bigs are doing whatever they want out of the pick-and-roll. The offensive system varies on a nightly basis, and not in a bad way.

The reason things look different now is the way Kristaps Porziņģis’ dynamic skill set allows Mazzulla to move his gravity around the floor. You don’t even see him in that first highlight, yet he’s the one opening this whole action up.

Watch how his position in an awkward spot in the high corner messes with Toronto’s defensive alignment.

His man, elite rim protector Jakob Poeltl, is in defensive no-man’s land because he decided to stay up on Porziņģis’ body. He’s not in position to affect Holiday’s drive — well, maybe he could’ve if he wasn’t sleepwalking — or to contest in the paint. Poeltl spent the first moment of the possession standing between Porziņģis and the ball, just completely away from the play.

And while most people would presume you want to put Poeltl all the way in the far corner, this is actually a more compromising position. When the defender’s in the corner and someone else drives into the paint, the defender has a simple binary read to stop the ball or stay home on the shooter.

Whichever one he chooses, it’s a common enough help situation that his teammates know how to adjust. But this weird spot on the weak elbow? Bigs just don’t live there.

The drive

Because Porziņģis is already pulling the center as far from the action as he can, the Celtics don’t have to worry about keeping bodies out of the paint with Holiday on the ball. They know Holiday has the creativity and explosiveness to get by his guy, especially with the way his spin move has been leaving defenders in the dust this season.

To make things easier, Jaylen Brown is the screener here. So his man, rookie wing Gradey Dick, has to figure out how to guard an All-Star in a high-speed pick-and-roll a few weeks into his NBA career. Best of luck young’n.

When Holiday waltzes past Dick and hits the paint, that’s where he meets the last defender Toronto would want protecting the rim: Dennis Schröder. This is where things look really different compared to last season, as Robert Williams would usually be the guy in the dunker spot. White and Marcus Smart did it on occasion, but this was really Williams’ role and that meant it was the center instead of a guard standing in the way.

White makes such good reads on the ball that Mazzulla can put him anywhere on the floor and know he’s going to see every passing option. The Celtics have always had great passers at the five, between Williams and Al Horford, so it was going to be interesting to see how the Celtics’ inside-out passing could work.

The answer is to have the guards be the bigs. Holiday and White have been great as the screeners in the pick-and-roll, and now they’re even the bigs working the dunker spot. Mazzulla is using Porziņģis’ shooting and driving threat to invert the defense and this is the best example of it working.

The kick

Holiday gets Schröder in the air with a no-look shovel pass to White, and now we finally get to the Tatum part of the story. If there is anyone on this team a defender should be fixated on, it’s probably the first-team All-NBA guy. But his man, Scottie Barnes, isn’t even facing him by the time Holiday hits the paint.

The Raptors defense has officially lost Tatum.

But Barnes has to contend with White stepping into the easiest layup he could ask for. At the same time, Poeltl is finally rising from his slumber and realizing he can still make a play. They collapse on White and he sells the whole thing to perfection, getting the pump fake way up in the air before firing the pass right in Tatum’s sweet spot.

His pass was so precise it let Tatum hop into a rhythm side-step to give him enough room to not worry about the contest. He could have swung the ball over to Brown, who the defense probably would have just gifted the free shot. That’s how much Boston twisted the Raptors in a knot.

The Celtics aren’t just doing things a little differently than last year. They are doing things a little differently than last week. Their ability to adapt to personnel and take advantage of crossmatches and do all the other stuff Mazzulla was preaching last year is far more advanced now. Credit to GM Brad Stevens for bringing in a game-changing floor spacer in Porziņģis and a more explosive dribble penetrator in Holiday.

But this is a credit to White for taking another step forward from role player to legit high-end starter. Remember before the season when some people wondered if Horford was going to keep starting?

Unless they want White to be Manu Ginobili, he’s a guaranteed starter on every team in the NBA and savvy plays like this one show why he’s the ultimate fifth starter in a lineup full of all-stars. But anyone in that starting lineup can make any one of those plays. That’s why it all has been working pretty well. They can find the matchup they want and instead of going iso to attack it, they can bury the mismatch into the middle stages of the play that the defense never sees it coming.

That’s the next level.

(Photo of Jayson Tatum: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

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