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Why Kristaps Porziņģis is the key to the Celtics' championship hopes

Just past the halfway point of their first season together, Joe Mazzulla said that it felt like the Boston Celtics were beginning to get the hang of playing with Kristaps Porziņģis.

"I think now we're starting [to] have a lot of moments of like, 'Oh, this guy can make my life easier,'" the Celtics' head coach told reporters last month.

On one hand, that sounds kind of funny. After all, Porziņģis has looked like a seamless fit since his Boston debut — a 30-point, eight-rebound, four-block, five-3-pointer masterclass against the team that drafted him, the New York Knicks — while averaging 20.1 points per game on career-best shooting efficiency for the best team in the NBA. Like, Boston's been outscoring opponents by a killer 12.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions when he's on the court. They're just figuring out how much easier he can make things?

On the other hand … well, if they're just figuring out how much easier he can make things, then that goes from "kind of funny" to "very scary" for the other teams that might see the Celtics in the Eastern Conference playoffs in a couple of months.

For now, if the East's other hopefuls want to see Boston, they'll have to squint: At a league-best 45-12, the Celtics have a commanding 7.5-game lead over the second-place Cavaliers. That makes the C's a virtuallock for the East's topseed, and with it, home-court advantage through to the Finals … and, with a five-game edge over the West-leading Timberwolves and Thunder, in the championship round, too.

Provided, of course, they get there.

That’s the target for Boston — the summit that this generation of one of the league’s glamor franchises has yet to reach. No team has won more games over the past eight seasons than the Celtics; they’ve appeared in five of the last seven Eastern Conference finals, reached the Finals once, and held a 2-1 lead over the Warriors back in 2022. And yet: no rings.

"We weren't where we wanted to be, anyways, as far as a Finals or championship team," Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens recently told Steve Bulpett of Heavy.com.

And so: Porziņģis, plucked from the relative hinterlands of the nation's capital after a season-plus-long sabbatical with the Wizards that saw him play some of the best basketball of his career for a team that wasn't competing for much. ("But nobody saw that, you know?" the Latvian told Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Vincent Goodwill a couple of months back.) Stevens bet that a 7-foot-3 giant who'd developed the ability to mash mismatches on the low block would be just the thing to grease the wheels of a Boston offense that had ground to a halt against Golden State in 2022 and Miami in 2023 when its 3-point shooting dried up — the cure for what's ailed the Celtics' half-court attack in the season's biggest moments.

A Saturday in late February doesn't qualify as one of those moments. But there the Knicks were, hanging with the visiting Celtics in a marquee nationally televised matchup, an and-one by All-Star point guard Jalen Brunson knotting the score at 64 early in the third quarter. This is who New York has been throughout Tom Thibodeau's tenure: physical and tenacious enough to compete, even down three starters; a pain to play against; a team that won't beat itself, so you're going to have to do it.

So, the Celtics did:

In the span of eight and a half minutes, that tie game turned into a 20-point Celtics romp — a superior team hitting the gas, building a lead it would never relinquish. And Porziņģis was at the center of all of it.

He operates from the elbow, finding Derrick White for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. He rim-runs after a Knicks miss, getting a deep seal in the paint on Isaiah Hartenstein to draw a foul. He pairs in the high pick-and-roll with MVP candidate Jayson Tatum to stress-test New York's coverages. First, he punishes the Knicks for trying to pressure Tatum by putting two defenders on the ball, popping and cashing out from 27 feet. Then, he punishes them for trying to switch defensive assignments, backing the nearly-a-foot-smaller Josh Hart into the paint — another deep seal, another foul.

Later, Porziņģis screens for new pal Jaylen Brown in what has become one of the NBA's most effective pick-and-roll partnerships. That triggers a switch, putting Brown in isolation against Hartenstein; Porziņģis quickly clears out to give Brown an uncluttered driving lane, leading to a righty finish.

On the other end, Porziņģis communicates an off-ball switch, passing Hart off to Brown and picking up Precious Achiuwa, allowing him to stay closer to the paint, where he can step in to contest Brunson's floater and force a miss. He's developed into a monster rim protector, sitting fourth in the NBA in contested shots per game and ninth in blocks. Opponents are shooting just 59.8% inside the restricted area against Boston with Porziņģis on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, which would rank No. 1 in the NBA over the course of the full season, and just 51.9% at the rim when he's the nearest defender, according to Second Spectrum's tracking data — the fifth-stingiest mark among the 195 players to contest at least 100 up-close tries.

He teams with Brown and Holiday to help keep Brunson from getting to the middle of the floor, then calmly inhales Achiuwa’s drive, forcing another miss before tipping the defensive rebound over to White. When the C’s push in transition, he makes a timely back-cut behind Hartenstein, forcing Hart to step up to tag him; this opens up Holiday in the far corner for a 3.

Porziņģis sets a back-screen in a stack pick-and-roll action — tough to defend in any context, given the number of bodies and amount of motion in play, but all the more so when both screeners are plus shooters. When he pops to the top of the key, Brunson guesses right, rotating over to try to deflect the pass back; it doesn't matter, though, because the 7-foot-3 Porziņģis reaches the ball first for a one-touch redirect to Sam Hauser for a rhythm 3.

On the ensuing possession, he catches Knicks reserve Jericho Sims napping on an inbounds pass, popping out for his second 28-footer of the run. He caps it off by helping on an Achiuwa baseline drive, forcing a pass into traffic that results in a turnover, before getting on his horse — or, I guess, on his unicorn? — for another rim-run in transition. The threat of a giant rumbling into an uncontested catch and dunk forces Knicks wing Alec Burks to step up to tag him. Unfortunately for New York, though, this responsible decision has the downside of leaving Jayson Tatum wide open in the corner. Splash.

Porziņģis took only three shots during that 8.5-minute span, but you could see it all. Everything that Stevens hoped to receive in the foundation-shaking trade that cost Boston totemic figure Marcus Smart, but that Stevens recently said he felt was necessary because "if you're not trying to get better, you're probably going to get caught." Everything that has made the towering 28-year-old such a perfect fit in Boston, where he's unlocked the best version of what has been the NBA's best team ever since October's opening tip.

There are plenty of reasons why the Celtics enter Tuesday's matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers riding an eight-game winning streak, with by far the NBA's best record, best net rating and best odds of winning the 2024 NBA championship: the two-way contributions of All-NBA mainstay Tatum and three-time All-Star Brown; the backcourt of advanced-stats All-Star White and Holiday, a godsend of a hand-in-glove replacement for Smart; the perpetually rock-solid veteran big man Al Horford. But what's made this year's model so devastating — to date, one of the best regular-season teams the league's ever seen — is just how transformational an addition Porziņģis has been.

Mazzulla's "he makes life easier" observation came after a win over the Heat — the team whose ferocious and malleable defense so often stifled the C's during the 2023 Eastern Conference finals. Boston finished the 2022-23 regular season tied for third in offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass, scoring 118.3 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions on the strength of a barrage of 3-point shots. In the conference finals against the Heat, though, that dropped all the way down to 112.2 points-per-100 — with a half-court offensive efficiency mark that would've ranked 25th in the league during the regular season.

"We struggled last year against Miami because they were switching, and we didn't have anybody to really throw the ball to, to expose their switching," Tatum recently told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. "They took advantage of us on that."

The Celtics’ inability to generate good inside looks against defenses that could fluster them on the perimeter led Stevens and the rest of Boston’s brain trust to seek out a new solution — someone who could punish cross-matches and cause five-alarm fires in the middle of a zone, while also fitting into Mazzulla’s five-out offensive approach.

"And KP is, like, the ultimate answer for that," Tatum told Shelburne.

Porziņģis showed why in that January win over the Heat, scoring 19 points on just nine field goal attempts in 20 minutes by routinely firing over the top of smaller defenders, whether on a switch or in the teeth of a zone. (In the 2023 playoffs, Boston scored 0.86 points per possession against zone defense, according to Synergy Sports Technology's tracking. This season, that's up to 1.15 points per possession against zone — sixth-best in the league.)

During his days with the Knicks and Mavericks, the 7-foot-3 Latvian often struggled with smaller, stronger defenders capable of pushing him off of his preferred spots and forcing him into tougher looks, often taken while fading away from both contact and the basket. Now, though, Porziņģis has the lower body strength to anchor down low, the poise to play through tight coverage, and the confidence that if he just keeps the ball high and goes up over the top of the defender — whether he’s facing up, uncorking a turnaround J or burrowing his way into a half-hook in the lane — none of what’s happening down below can prevent the ball from finding the bottom of the net:

Porziņģis is shooting a scorching 67% on post-ups this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology's tracking, and averaging a whopping 1.4 points per possession on plays finished out of the post. That's not only the best mark in the NBA this season; it's on pace for the highest single-season figure of any player to finish at least 50 such plays in Synergy's database, which stretches all the way back to 2004.

"We haven't had a low-post presence like that since I've been on the Celtics," Tatum told Goodwill after a Christmas Day win over the Lakers. "It creates so many problems."

Especially when paired with the pressure Porziņģis can put on defenses from the perimeter. He's averaging a career-high 1.3 points per possession that he finishes after screening in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy, thanks partly to varying his shot diet. Porziņģis isn't just stroking triples in the pick-and-pop (although he is drilling more than 38% of his catch-and-shoot 3s, and taking nearly five of them a game). He's also mixing in more hard rolls to the rim, and often finishing those dives very loudly:

With the addition of Porzingis' varied scoring game, a Celtics attack that was below league-average in fourth-quarter scoring last season has now jumped up to eighth. A group that finished 11th last season in scoring efficiency in the "clutch" — when the score's within five points in the last five minutes — is up to fifth. A team that has long cratered with Tatum off the floor is now not only winning those minutes, but blowing teams' doors off by 10.6 points-per-100 when Porzingis plays them. And a half-court offense that could be the difference between falling just short again or finally reaching the top of the mountain scores like the No. 1 unit in the NBA with Porzingis on the floor.

In fact, given how phenomenal the Celtics have looked since bringing Porziņģis on board, “on the floor” is about the only caveat left.

"That's the thing about me, you know?" Porziņģis told Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer last season. "It's like, 'Oh, yeah, he's talented, but he cannot stay on the court consistently.'"

After tearing his left ACL midway through the 2017-18 season, Porzingis had yet to top 60 games until last season in Washington. He still hasn't played more than 65 since his sophomore season, all the way back in 2016-17. He'll top that if he suits up for every Celtics game the rest of the way, but considering he's already missed 15 games this season with various ankle, knee, calf and back injuries — and considering the C's have the No. 1 seed pretty well sewn up — maybe Boston's brass decides discretion is the better part of valor, keeping a close eye on Porzingis' minutes and workload in the run-up to the postseason. That, as the Celtics know all too well, is when everything gets harder — and when a team with championship-or-bust expectations will really, really need someone who can make everyone's life a little easier.

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