Kristaps Porzingis Already Looks Like A Perfect Fit With The Celtics


Key Highlights:

  • Porzingis (30 points, five 3-pointers) made an impact on both ends of the floor in his Celtics debut
  • Thanks to the added spacing provided by Porzingis’ shooting ability, Boston converted 25 of its 38 two-pointers (65.8 percent) and 20 of 25 (80 percent) attempts at the rim
  • New York was 1-of-13 on shots within 6 feet when Porzingis was the primary defender

When the Boston Celtics dealt for Kristaps Porzingis this summer, the thought process, at least I saw it, was obvious. They wanted to merge the most alluring qualities of Al Horford and Robert Williams III by rostering one big man who could space the floor, patrol the hoop and convert around the rim. Horford met the first criteria, but has regressed as an interior deterrent over the past few seasons and isn’t much of a threatening roller these days. Williams met the second and third criteria, but has never been a reliable scorer more than 5 feet away from the hoop throughout his career.

The 7-foot-3 Porzingis, meanwhile, is a 36 percent outside shooter (five attempts per game) who swats nearly two shots each night and can finish above the rim. Finding said blend in a singular player would allow Boston to remain a five-out, well-spaced unit without sacrificing interior aptitude on either end.

How Did Porzingis Fit In His Celtics’ Debut?

In Porzingis’ Celtics debut Wednesday night, that vision crystallized almost immediately.

The veteran center scored 30 points (8-of-15 shooting, 5-of-9 from deep, 3-of-4 at the rim) and tallied four rejections. Boston outscored the New York Knicks by 13 points during his 38 minutes and was outscored by nine when he rested en route to a 108-104 victory. While Jayson Tatum (34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals, one block) was the headliner, Porzingis was his co-star and the two complemented each other aptly.

Throughout most of the first half, he was used as a floor-spacer, either in pick-and-pops or stationed in the corners, which repeatedly put Mitchell Robinson in a bind, whether it be navigating drop coverage or defending Porzingis in space. Ultimately, Isaiah Hartenstein’s mobility on traps and hedges proved to be a more useful counter against the Celtics’ flood of pick-and-pops. But even that didn’t quell Porzingis, who buried a couple of fourth-quarter triples to turn back New York’s second-half charge as Hartenstein closed the game over Robinson.

The Latvian burned the Knicks as a diver, cutter, and shooter, capitalizing on all the attention granted to various ball-handlers. Although Horford has canned 40 percent of his triples since rejoining Boston in 2021-22, his slow release invites defenders to play off of him because they know they can properly recover. Porzingis hasn’t generated the same efficiency, but his release is vastly quicker and he’s still an effective shooter. Play off of him and he’ll produce a quality look immediately upon the catch. That proved true on Wednesday. Hartenstein and Robinson repeatedly granted him too much room and he exploited them.

Porzingis’ Shooting Ability Creates Improved Spacing For Teammates

The last bucket stands out. Porzingis is comfortable stationing himself a few steps beyond the arc to shoot. That elongates Julius Randle’s closeout after he’s already conflicted about leaving Jaylen Brown too early and risking an easy straight-line drive. The possibility of an unencumbered straight-line exists because Hartenstein, New York’s most credible rim protector on the floor in that play, is far removed from the hoop.

Porzingis’ 30 points and five long balls were clear, valuable contributions, but the spacing he provided on a possession-by-possession basis was perhaps his most important impact. Boston converted 25 of its 38 two-pointers (65.8 percent), including 20 of 25 (80 percent) at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. Time and time again, the rest of the starting five, Tatum, Brown, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, maneuvered around the paint without any sort of looming deterrent nearby to hinder them. Porzingis was routinely slotted above the break or near the top of the key, which either prompted someone other than Robinson or Hartenstein to help inside or made the rotation for those two incredibly arduous.

Tatum loves putting his head down and using his spindly 6-foot-10 frame to overwhelm defenders on the drive. That can lead to him being spooked or caught off-guard by a center inside. With Porzingis’ shooting chops luring them away, the center was rarely there and Tatum’s flourished as a finisher (8 of 9 at the rim). He’s become quite adept around the basket the past few seasons, coalescing at a career-high 70 percent in 2022-23, and I suspect he could be in line for a new high-water mark after this year, given Porzingis’ presence.

Porzingis’ Rim Protection Played An Important Role In The Celtics’ Win

As the Celtics prospered inside the arc because of Porzingis, the Knicks experienced the inverse reality. They went 18-of-56 (32.1 percent) on two-pointers, sunk by a paltry 11-of-34 (32.4 percent) at the rim. Robinson doesn’t space the floor whatsoever. Hartenstein doesn’t inflict much concern either. The absence of a stretch 5 enabled Porzingis to wreak havoc as a rim protector and drop defender.

His discipline, timing and length were nightmares for opposing ball-handlers. RJ Barrett endured a particularly challenging evening. Jalen Brunson’s slippery, savvy drives were interrupted. According to NBA Stats, New York was 1-of-13 on shots within 6 feet of the hoop when Porzingis was the primary defender.

How Can Boston Improve With Porzingis In The Equation?

Boston has stuff to address.

Brown struggled mightily for many of the same reasons that have long plagued him (off-ball defense, passing vision, handle). As he continues assimilating to his new home, Holiday was a pretty notable passenger offensively. The offense stalled to a try-to-drive-and-kick halt much like it did during its worst valleys last season. Porzingis should be utilized more as a dribble handoff/passing hub and mismatch scorer inside.

Yet amid all those areas to clean up, which the next six months provide ample time for, the Porzingis fit seems rather snug already. He eased life for Tatum as a scorer, embedded new wrinkles into how offensive possessions can successfully end, and gave them a legitimately imposing drop defender to complement their switch-heavy style. All of those alluring possibilities were surely driving forces in Brad Stevens’ decision to acquire him four months ago.

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