It never seems to come as easy as it should, but the Celtics continue to take care of business against the teams they should and solidify their hold as a top-3 Eastern Conference team.
Here’s what stood out tonight:
There were a ton of jump shots.
IT didn’t take a free throw tonight because he was relying on his ability to get defenders off balance and shoot over them. I only remember two actual drives to the basket tonight, compared to his career-high fifteen three point attempts.
He wasn’t the only one. The Celtics had 10 free throws on 15 fouls for the entire night (the Hornets had 17 on 12 fouls). This seemed more like a style choice than a symptom of the refs letting them play (although there were some interesting screens being thrown around tonight). Charlotte is overloaded with height and length on the front court, and Boston countered by forcing them to sprint along the perimeter with ball movement until they missed a rotation and left someone open. When the rock is being slung like that, and the team is definitive with their shot selection, good things tend to happen.
The one exception to this rule was Al Horford, who took it upon himself tonight to punish any interior defender he caught in isolation to the tune of 22 points. Aggressive Al Horford is fun.
Kelly Olynyk might be returning to form.
Olynyk has had a pretty slow first half of this season. His numbers are down across the board, he’s had nicks and bruises in addition to recovering from shoulder surgery, and the timid nature that has plagued him in the past has returned. He has looked more like second-season Olynyk than third-season Olynyk so far.
The rust might be finally wearing off. Olynyk followed his 26-point shellacking of Atlanta with a 15-point, 9 rebound affair tonight. More importantly, however, was the fact that he looks aggressive again, for the first time in a long time. He shot right off the catch on most opportunities. He cut to the hoop without pausing. He even managed to grab an offensive rebound and throw it down from about 10 feet away. #TheBounceIsReal
Lineups that feature both Horford and Olynyk are a huge problem for opponents, and having the real KO back will be a huge boon going forward for an offense that’s already absurd. The next step for him will be to recover the defense focus he had last year. He still looks lost on a lot of rotations, which left the likes of Kemba Walker and Co. wide open lanes to play around in. He’s also returned to backpedaling when dealing with attackers at the rim, something we haven’t seen since his rookie days, and I didn’t see a single successful box-out from him tonight. 80% of the original Olynyk will be good, but 100% will be fantastic and potentially game-changing.
We’re at the halfway point of the season, and the defense still isn’t good. Blame it on injuries, blame it on the team not gelling as well as last year, blame it on the rebounding; whatever the case may be, it has some major issues that haven’t been addressed yet.
Allowing 98 points to an average offensive team doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence, but there were some moments that provided real glimmers of hope. Passing lanes were being jumped, most notably Marcus Smart tipping a pass away from Walker twice in the span of one second halfway through the fourth. Avery Bradley managed to snag a pass away from Nicolas Batum, who has almost a foot of height on him, just by out jumping him for a lob. This is the kind of stuff these guys were doing all the time last year. The defense is so much interesting when it’s helter skelter.
Also of note: the Celtics actually outrebounded a team (44-42)! The boxing out was still gross, but we saw more of the wings that would normally be guarding the perimeter crash the paint and, at the very least, make an attempt to poke misses away from Charlotte’s giants.
It’s not as though the team hasn’t been trying this year, but it’s so far lacked a consistent dose of the extra effort that made last year’s team such a pain to play against. Tonight represented a half-step in the right direction.
Your nightly King in the Fourth update:
Isaiah Thomas scored 17 points in tonight’s final period. He responded to the Hornets cutting the lead to 5 by scoring 13 straight, then he took a three-minute rest, then he hit a delightful triple-shake step-back jumper over Cody Zeller with two minutes remaining before hitting a dagger step-back from the free throw line with 40 seconds left to ice it. He finished with 35, and he didn’t even need a free throw to do it. So, your update is yes, he’s still ridiculous.
IT has really started to ride that step-back move of his, using the threat of his speed driving through the lane to get defenders off-balance before pulling up. This is a great sign; he really needed a go-to move for this year other than to run down the lane as fast as possible and hope he could get a layup or a foul. His arc on that move is making it incredibly difficult for taller defenders to shut him down, which had been his Achilles’ heel the past two playoffs.
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