Jrue Holiday, Celtics lean into post play in high-scoring win over Pacers

BOSTON — Jrue Holiday could have tried an outside shot on the opening Boston Celtics possession Wednesday night. Without a defender nearby, Holiday stood by himself for a moment or two but declined to release the jumper or even look at the basket. The Celtics wanted something else out of the play. Holiday waited for Derrick White to take the ball away from him, then dove to the low block to receive another pass.

“First play of the game was for me,” Holiday said. “And I had a post-up. I could’ve found someone. Because of the talent that we have, who are you gonna guard?”

Holiday didn’t need to find someone else. He took three dribbles with his right hand, bumping into Bennedict Mathurin with each one, before spinning around the young Indiana Pacers wing to finish on the other side of the hoop. It was the first of many buckets for the Celtics in a 155-104 win that marked the second-highest regular-season scoring output in franchise history. Though the Celtics also hit 20 3-pointers and 27 free throws, the offense’s newest element was evident in the continued embrace of low-post play.

“I feel like that threat makes us even harder to guard,” Holiday said. “At any moment, like, if my 3-pointer’s not falling, I can also go to the paint and post up. We got JB (Jaylen Brown) and JT (Jayson Tatum) in the midrange going one-on-one. With KP (Kristaps Porziņģis) down there, I feel like we have a lot of bases covered.”

Early on, the Celtics offense has transformed from one of the NBA’s most post-up-averse attacks into one of the most post-up reliant. Through a 4-0 start, they have used nearly seven more post-up possessions per game than they did last season, including possessions that end with passes out of the post. They entered Wednesday night with the third-most such possessions per game in the NBA (11.0), according to Synergy Sports. That put Boston ahead of Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers by one post-up chance per game and not far behind the league’s most post-up-heavy offense in Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets.

Porziņģis’ presence alone would have shifted the Celtics’ style somewhat, but the team has leaned into post play beyond just him. Tatum has looked for offense on the block regularly since arriving for training camp with 12 additional pounds of muscle, by his own account. Holiday, one of the NBA’s strongest guards, can operate on the block even against taller defenders. Brown, a sharpshooter from the midrange, usually has either a speed or power advantage against his man. And the amount of shooting the Celtics put on the court only enhances the opportunities each of those players sees down low.

On the first possession Wednesday night, the Pacers were reluctant to help out Mathurin. They had reason not to send additional attention toward Holiday. Brown and Porziņģis were stationed on the weak side. Tatum and White were on the strong side. If anybody had rotated over, Holiday would have likely fired a pass to one of the great shooters around him. Instead, the Pacers played him one-on-one, leaving him plenty of time and space to create an easy look for himself.

Holiday’s bucket was the first of four Celtics post-ups during a 44-point first quarter. They scored seven points on those four plays, going 3-for-4 from the field and drawing a foul on one of the makes.

“It fits our lineup and roster that we have,” Joe Mazzulla said of the increased post-ups. “We have four guys that can post, and because of the roster, matchups are different and we can take advantage of matchups in a different way.”

The Celtics ran away from the Pacers on Wednesday while tying the third-largest margin of victory in franchise history. The bench, which had been quiet over the first three games of the season, combined for 63 points, including 17 for Sam Hauser. He made five of six 3-point attempts as the Celtics shot 20 for 35 from beyond the arc as a team. They have long been capable of lighting it up from outside, but have diversified the offense this season with an additional willingness to punish opponents on the low block.

“We got everything, right?” Holiday said. “We’re in the paint. We have the midrange and we have the 3.”

Tatum has posted up with far more frequency than he did last season. When he drew T.J. McConnell on a switch Wednesday, Tatum went straight to the block. Even in that matchup, the Pacers didn’t send a double-team, perhaps because they were wary of leaving Boston’s shooters open.

When asked about post-ups, Mazzulla brought up one from the Celtics’ win against the Washington Wizards earlier this week. The Wizards did send help when Porziņģis caught the ball down low against a much smaller defender. He capitalized on the defensive strategy by whipping a cross-court pass to Tatum for a wide-open 3-pointer.

“I think posting takes the pressure off of all of our guys and allows us to get to our spacing and kind of read where each guy is,” Mazzulla said. “So we’ve just gotta continue to be efficient in those.”

It’s a new trick for the Celtics. Mazzulla believes it should help them attack switches.

“It just gives us different ways to win basketball games,” Mazzulla said. “When you’re able to get those easy baskets, I think one, it settles our guys down to where they can get an easier shot at the rim or where they can calm the run down. I think that’s another way to stop a run is getting into those situations. But we really fight to keep our spacing well, and if our spacing stays well and our guys have the space and poise to play down there, I think it’s something you do.”

(Photo: Winslow Townson / USA Today)

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