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How Kristaps Porziņģis’ cold, ‘lonely’ winter made him Celtics’ key to success

Written by on June 3, 2024

BOSTON — Before his new team had even seen the court, Kristaps Porziņģis was already competing.

At media day, players are shuttled through a circuit of interviews, news conferences and photoshoots. It’s a complicated operation that’s held up if one of the many moving parts stalls.

When the new guy, Porziņģis, came across a Ping-Pong table, he decided nobody could continue to the next stop until they beat him.

“I would say I’m a level above legendary,” Porziņģis told The Athletic with a laugh. “No, I’m decent. But I have some holes in my game that I need to improve. My backhand is a little suspect. My forehand is super dangerous, but I need to get my backhand better.”

In the past, Porziņģis’ confidence and competitiveness were often conflated with ego. When things fell apart in Dallas, where he played from January 2019 to February 2022, the perception that he was a bad teammate made its way around the league.

“I think every player has ego, right?” Porziņģis said. “You have to have it. It just needs to be under control. I think the older you are, the easier it is to understand the whole picture.”

After he turned his career around over a season-plus in Washington, Boston took a gamble he could join its locker room dynamic and embrace it. In Dallas, things never quite clicked with Luka Dončić. So, Porziņģis made it a point to start on the right foot with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

“They were open to me here. There was not any kind of tension,” Porziņģis said. “I told them from Day 1, I’m coming in here to help you guys win. That’s all I’m here for and whatever it takes. If it takes me sitting on the bench or coming off the bench or whatever, then I’m here for it.”

Early in his career, Porziņģis was on a trajectory toward stardom. Then he went to Dallas, where things didn’t go as planned thanks to injuries and fit, and he had to start over.

His stint with the Wizards helped him find his identity. Boston gave him a chance for a renaissance.

“As a basketball player, I’m coming in pretty ready, entering my prime. But definitely, as a person, this year has been an interesting year for me outside of basketball,” said Porziņģis, 28. “But I think it was necessary. You always learn something, right? You’re like, ‘Oh, man, the way I was thinking two years ago.’ And it’s always evolving as a person.”

He wanted to try something different. He had previously lived with his brother, Janis, or his partner each season. But when he moved to Boston, he was solo.

“This is my first year where I’m completely alone. The winter is dark. It was just a long winter,” Porziņģis said. “Now that the weather is better and your friends are visiting, it’s different. But that (winter) came with a lot of time to just think about my own stuff. So this was a lonely season for me in a way.”

But with that loneliness came a focus on the team. Porziņģis formed an instant bond with his neighbor Brown, who lives in the same building.

“I think my experience helped us get on track right away to have a pretty smooth start,” Porziņģis said. “You saw early in the year, me and JB, we clicked right away (on the court) on a lot of those like back doors and then two-man games.”

Porziņģis said he studied Brown’s and Tatum’s games and spent time working with them to learn their spots on the floor. He soon understood where to set their screens, how to roll and then where to find them once the defense had to respond.

It was apparent early in the season that Porziņģis would be taking fewer shots than at any point since his rookie season. He leaned into it and the Celtics took off.

“A lot of the big guys may be stuck in their ways doing what makes them comfortable,” Tatum said. “He got outside his comfort zone a little bit and it made us a better team.”

Porziņģis wanted to win a playoff series, something he had never done. The Celtics’ goal was clear: Banner No. 18 or bust.

After a relatively healthy season, Porziņģis suffered a soleus strain in his right calf muscle in Game 4 against Miami and still has not taken the floor beyond the first round.

But as he plans to return for the NBA Finals against Dallas, which begins Thursday in Boston, he’ll have to revisit his past to complete his journey.

Kristaps Porziņģis’ journey will come full circle against Luka Dončić and the Mavericks in the NBA Finals. (Glenn James / NBAE via Getty Images)

Before Porziņģis got to Dallas, his ascension in New York made him the face of the Knicks once Carmelo Anthony was gone. Even as the team struggled to win and he struggled to stay healthy, it felt like the Knicks were becoming his team.

“Obviously coming from New York, the younger you are, the more I think you make it about yourself. Kind of like, this is who I am and this is how it needs to be or whatever,” Porziņģis said. “And then on top of that, you have that big city like New York build you up even more, right? Like, everybody that plays in New York feels like they’re bigger than they actually are. It’s that hype of the city, right?”

But then he tore his ACL, the Knicks traded him to Dallas, and he was no longer the guy. Both Porziņģis and the Mavs were betting he would return to form and become the partner Dončić needed to lift the team to contention. Even though Dallas gave him a five-year max deal, he had to fit with the nascent superstar.

Coach Rick Carlisle wanted to build a five-out system that spaced Porziņģis to the corners, but his game was based on the post up until that point. As Porziņģis’ injuries continued and Dallas needed a consistent offensive identity, Carlisle publicly declared it mathematically did not make sense to post him up.

“So it was just kind of like, boom, we’re not going to do this, it’s not effective. But maybe if Rick knew that I could be this effective, he would have had more patience,” Porziņģis said. “So I just really improved my game in the post and probably if I were the player that I am right now (when I went) to Dallas, Rick would look at it differently. I take responsibility for that and Luka was playing out of his mind. So, of course, we wanted to play through Luka and I was just there to support him.”

Their teammates in Dallas maintained that Dončić and Porziņģis got along fine off the court, but that the timing of Dončić being in his early 20s and Porziņģis constantly being hurt strained the on-court chemistry.

“I think if another person could have delivered the message to get them to play well, it would have worked out,” former Mavs teammate Dorian Finney-Smith said. “But where they both was at in their career, it was just rough.”

After being built up as a star in New York, Porziņģis accepted it would be Dončić’s team. But it was hard to embrace being away from the action.

“Coming from being the guy in New York when I was with him, he went to Dallas and they didn’t know how to mesh, I guess,” said Mavs wing Tim Hardaway Jr., who came to Dallas in the trade with Porziņģis. “Once you embrace that and realize that and accept your role, then everything will take care of itself and that’s what he’s done.”

Porziņģis said he understood quickly that while they could make it work, “it was just not going to work.” Once Dallas sent him to Washington in February 2022, he was determined to have things go right this time.

Some of his Wizards teammates expected he would bring ego to a team mired in mediocrity. While Porziņģis had come up short in Dallas, Washington hadn’t had a winning record since 2017-18.

“He came into the locker room the first day and it was clear that a lot of those things that were said about him about how he was not a great teammate, everything was totally the opposite,” former Wizards teammate Anthony Gill said. “He was one of the greatest teammates we’ve had here. He was unbelievable, man.”

Porziņģis would frequently get dinner with Gill and Deni Avdija on road trips, discussing life outside of basketball. Gill was surprised to learn that while Porziņģis was one of the most competitive players on the team, he also was childish and goofy.

“One thing he always did tell us is that I couldn’t fall into that trap of believing the narrative that’s always put out about players,” Gill said. “Because it can be the total opposite once you get to meet them.”

Porziņģis was able to reinvent himself and his game in Washington. (Rich Storry / USA Today)

When Porziņģis arrived in Boston, he and Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla talked. The coach wanted him to be open about new roles and strategies. Mazzulla wanted to hone a system influenced by soccer that was more responsive to the opponent.

Open-mindedness would become a heuristic for processing everything, from expectations coming into a game down to reading the defense. Mazzulla wanted Porziņģis to see everything he did as part of creating an advantage.

“KP is (open-minded) because he’s European, so he watches (soccer), he watches UFC, he watches European basketball,” Mazzulla told The Athletic. “Those principles, he has learned really his whole life.”

In Dallas, he struggled to get deep post position and score over bigs. No problem. That was no longer a part of his job description.

The Celtics needed him to post up when he had a clear advantage, but they would help create those for him. The big man learned in Washington he could now effectively post up small defenders who switched and be a hub for Bradley Beal and others cutting around him. Porziņģis had enough of a base to shoot on balance with defenders underneath him. The fadeaways were gone, making it easier to link up with Beal once the ball was in his hands.

“KP’s special. That type of size, touch and versatility, I’m using that,” Beal said. “Even let him handle a little in those mini brush screens for him to come off and get going. So it was easy for me. He definitely revived himself last year with us, just being aggressive, finding his niche.”

The Celtics wanted to build a versatile team that could revolve around Porziņģis in the middle. They had guards who could post up, protect the rim or even live in the dunker spot behind the hoop. Once they replaced Robert Williams III and Malcolm Brogdon with Jrue Holiday, every player in their core rotation was a knockdown 3-point shooter.

His objective on offense was to force teams to switch, catch the ball at the free-throw line, and then shoot or pass over however many bodies were in front of him. His decision-making became easier because Boston surrounded him with so much talent and he was willing to sacrifice shots to keep the offense moving. As long as he could see the basket from his 7-foot-2 perch above the fray, defenses struggled to deter him.

Even though Porziņģis had never won a playoff series, Boston thought he could be the key to winning. After years of the Celtics’ crunchtime leads vanishing with the season on the line in the playoffs, Porziņģis was going to be their panacea.

“To me, it was more about the end game at the critical moments in the playoffs,” Mazzulla said. “Teams are going to switch, so how can we be ready to combat that?”

Boston had trouble maintaining its offense when playoff defenses ramped up to championship levels. Tatum and Brown struggled to find open lanes and clean looks when they couldn’t beat their man and the opposition knew how it wanted to help. Disrupting the Celtics’ rhythm was the key, which Miami and Golden State figured out and executed.

Mazzulla designed the offense to mimic late-game execution with a mantra to think fast and play slow. Whether they got a stop on defense, they would push the ball up the floor quickly, scope out a crossmatch and then get Porziņģis involved to punish it.

“We didn’t know going into the season how teams were going to guard him, so we were pretty open-minded to just seeing how that goes,” Mazzulla said. “But we knew the endgame was end of a game, end of a series, switching, how do we incorporate him into that?”

Most of the Celtics’ playbook is formations with an initial action, with various permutations improvised based on how the defense covers it. Mazzulla often scans the floor to see the matchups when his team gets the possession and will call out a play.

It didn’t take long for him to get a feel for how to use Porziņģis to maximize that leverage. Some teams would just switch and accept Porziņģis was getting a cross-match. Others would run a standard drop coverage and wait until the last second to veer him, which is a delayed switch.

Either way, Porziņģis often got to that spot at the nail where he could put the ball over his head and read the floor. As a result, Boston’s clutch net rating jumped from 4.6 last regular season to 15.4 in 2023-24, per NBA Stats.

Porziņģis became the focal point of one of Boston’s go-to plays, “Octagon.” It’s a play where he sets a screen for a ballhandler on the elbow with the other three Celtics spaced around the other side of the floor.

Because Porziņģis is screening a defender against the sideline with no help close by, it makes it easy for him to force the switch. From there, the defense either doubles so he can pass out, or he can work on a smaller defender.

“We have so many weapons that are so clutch, that all five of us can make something happen,” Porziņģis said. “It’s a nightmare for the other team, to be honest.”

As he prepares to make his NBA Finals debut, he’ll be the only player in the Celtics rotation who hasn’t been there before. But Mazzulla insists that for this team, the playoffs are the same as the regular season. Their system was designed, through Porziņģis, based on that principle.

“At this point in my career, I’m not chasing another contract, I don’t have these crazy expectations,” Porziņģis said. “I’m settling into who I am as a person, as a basketball player. I have my contract signed. It’s like the perfect situation for us to just go and win. And those things adding up at the right time, these guys entering their prime, it’s a perfect storm.”

Porziņģis recognizes that for the first time in his career he is not one of the franchise cornerstones. Brown and Tatum will lead, while Porziņģis plans to do what he’s done all season and embrace his role.

Just like his forehand, Porziņģis honed his game in the post to be “super dangerous.” The backhand was everything else that came with being talented in the NBA and not always getting your way.

Now he has his contract and a role he enjoys. He can be secure in who he is and how his career is going. Now there is only one thing left for him to chase.

“Those two guys (Tatum and Brown) leading us, we were a tough team to start and our record speaks for itself,” Porziņģis said. “But it won’t mean much if we don’t go all the way and that is our goal.”

(Top photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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