Celtics reach historic territory atop the NBA by trying to be simplest yet smartest team

NEW YORK — Kristaps Porziņģis knew this would work.

He’s seen a few imperfect teams in his time.

When he played for the New York Knicks they were, quite simply, flawed. Dallas, Washington, it was all the same thing. A team with a couple of dominant players, but missing a coherent identity that worked for him and everybody else.

Then Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics front office pitched him on, well, this.

“When the opportunity presented, for me at least, I said this is gonna work, 100 percent,” Porziņģis said after the Celtics beat the Knicks 116-102 to lead the East by eight games.

“Or we’re gonna figure it out sooner than later,” Porziņģis said. “And it just worked right away because of the fit, because of where I am in my career, and adding Jrue (Holiday), D. (Derrick) White’s playing an incredible level, and not even saying anything about JB (Jaylen Brown) and JT (Jason Tatum). Those guys are always on top of their game. So just overall great players but also great people and that makes the team connect very easily.”

Porziņģis didn’t know exactly what this Celtics team would look like. They didn’t even have Holiday at the time. But they explained to him how he could unlock everything, and it’s exactly what he’s done.

“I don’t know, I didn’t put too many expectations. I thought it would be important for us to be No. 1 and we are No. 1,” Porziņģis said. “But I think we always try to still look at the things like, we can get better here and we can get better here. We want to be the whole package as a team and have no weaknesses.”

They have the 10th-best net rating in NBA history. All of those teams won the title, except the 2015-16 Warriors and Spurs, thanks to LeBron James.

There aren’t any weaknesses with this Celtics team. It doesn’t mean they’re done improving.

Coach Joe Mazzulla knew this would work.

He’s seen a few imperfect offenses in his time.

When Stevens was the coach, they had a more traditional makeup behind a star guard and various shooters spreading the floor. Under Ime Udoka, the Celtics ran a 4 out offense featuring Rob Williams rolling all over the place to drag some help with him.

Things look a lot different this year. It’s not just because they have lineups with five players who can do everything.

It’s because everyone has bought in not just to their role, but how they play together. It starts at the top, where Tatum and Brown have finally understood how to run a system rather than just a play.

So while Porziņģis and Holiday have taken a backseat from their roles at their prior stop, it’s been easy to do when they have nights like this where Tatum tells Porziņģis he can ride shotgun so Tatum can take that spot in the back.

“Even JT, he deserves a lot, like, a lot of credit. Because he could say, ‘F it, like, I want to score 30 every night, I want to get the MVP,’ but he’s not doing that. And I think people are overlooking that,” Porziņģis said. “And you have to give him credit because when he does that, it makes everybody else do that, and then we’re winning games because everybody’s feeling good, everybody’s scoring, we’re all dangerous.”

This was one of those nights when Brown had it going, Tatum was getting doubled, and the offense looked essentially the same. It’s designed for anyone to step into any role at any moment.

“Jayson, they were doubling him tonight quickly. So he stopped looking for his and he was just trying to make the right pass and make the right play,” Al Horford said. “And the rest of us, we have to make sure that we make the defense pay for doing those things.”

The opponent’s coverage dictates their offense and they’re fine with that. They have a plan. No matter how many permutations of coverage they come across, they always have a plan.

“But that’s the thing, like, why we’re so good is because we have answers for all those coverages,” Porziņģis said. “And then on top of that, it’s not only we have the answers for the coverages, but we have like five or seven different guys that can go off on each night. So you put those two things together, it’s like, this is a headache for sure.”

And yet, Horford said Mazzulla is challenging them to get better. But what does better than the 10th-best net rating in history look like?

“Yeah, that’s a really good question,” Horford said. “But I feel like we’re not where we need to be yet and that’s a good thing. And it’s such a long season, it’s hard to be what we can, but it’s encouraging that we’re continuing to win in different ways and play differently.”

And while everyone has embraced that “different,” there was one player who would be the biggest challenge to fit into the new mold.

Jaylen Brown hangs on the rim after a dunk against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

Brown knew this would work.

He’s seen a few imperfect plays in his time.

Brown used to get the ball the same way, all the time. He’d zoom out of the corner off of a wide pindown screen, catch the ball on the move, then try to beat the defense to the paint so he could sky through the air. If they read the play, he would bounce out into space, get into a low dribble, and try to dig deep into his bag until he somehow had twirled his way through traffic. He loved playing so fast that sometimes he would lose track of the game.

He was so good at doing the most. But at a certain point, looking good wasn’t feeling good.

But Mazzulla had a simple concept that fully clicked with Brown: Read fast, play slow.

“Reading the game. Realizing fast but playing slow,” Brown said. “Recognizing what they’re in, how they’re guarding you, where the advantages are on the floor, and then taking your time. Not getting too sped up. Not allowing teams to try to muck up the game. We’re the more talented team. We gotta be the smarter team, as well. And when we do that, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

They are playing a brand of playoff basketball as a base system. You see it every year, teams abandon so much of what they run to get defenses to switch and then go at those mismatches. The Celtics have learned to do that in all phases of the game, from transition to half court and everything in between.

You saw it on Saturday when White went straight at Jalen Brunson in transition halfway through the first quarter, kicking it out to the corner once he drew in help to set up a swing around the arc that got Holiday a wide-open 3.

It was apparent when Mazzulla called “Octagon” during the third quarter for Brown and Porziņģis to run an empty-side elbow action to get Porziņģis a crossmatch in the post. Brown took a wide cut around the whole Knicks defense, Porziņģis slipped him a gorgeous bounce pass and Brown got the 3-point play. The refs probably should have called a charge, but it was a perfect example of how Brown has embraced giving up the ball so he can get it back in the most advantageous position.

“Making easy, smart basketball plays because there’s gonna come a time where the difficulty level is going to get raised and I’m gonna have to meet the call,” Brown said. “But for now, for the most part, for our team, I think just benefiting from making the easy, simple play, nothing’s wrong with that.”

So what is that next level Horford can’t describe, but knows is there? Maybe it’s not something new to add to their team, but rather just remaining themselves under actual pressure.

Not just a tremendously orchestrated Knicks team that can still play their butts off without their starting frontcourt. Can they stay one step ahead mentally against another great team that knows them inside and out for seven games?

“I think we’ve been great at it all year. I think we’ve been identifying mismatches, playing the game through each other. Everybody has sacrificed a little bit,” Brown said. “We all just play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. I think we’ve been pretty consistent in that all year long. I think that’s going to be key, especially in those moments of adversity, when it gets tough. How much can we stick to that game plan?”

That may be the one question hanging over the best team in the NBA. But this game was a reminder for Porziņģis why he is willing to buy in and won’t be selling anytime soon. He remembered what it was like when the Knicks fans used to cheer for him instead of boo, how dysfunctional they were despite both he and Carmelo Anthony being All-Stars.

It didn’t matter how good those were two individually. Those teams sucked. They didn’t have a unified goal. They didn’t have something bigger to play for that convinced them they had to play together.

“Everybody has made a sacrifice and I think people from outside kind of see that,” Porziņģis said. “But us as players, we know what we’re doing and we know what the goal is. So we’re all putting our stuff to the side for one big goal.”

Porziņģis didn’t really know this would work. But he believed in it. He still believes. Now he’s on, statistically to this point late in February, one of the greatest teams of all time.

That won’t mean anything three months from now when they’re trying to figure out how to take the lead in the conference finals against an opponent who has pushed their brains and bodies beyond their limit.

But he’s seen enough of himself and his team to believe that, even then, this will work.

(Top photo of Kristaps Porziņģis guarding Jalen Brunson: Brad Penner / USA Today)

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