A few weeks before the NBA postponed its season to March, Boston Celtics striker Jayson Tatum lost 41 points at the Staples Center in a defeat for his last win against the Los Angeles Lakers. After the game, LeBron James awarded the NBA’s final seal of approval when he posted a shot of himself and Tatum on Instagram, with everyone watching the field carefully as they waited to check in for the national TV matchup.
“That boi on my left is an ABSOLUTE PROBLEM !! Continue”, wrote James as a caption, adding the hashtag “#YoungKing”.
Although any narrow losses are daunting, an additional sign that Tatum is about to be one of the preeminent stars of his generation is a happy compensation.
Almost six months later, Absolute Problem leads a team that is back in the mix of the Eastern Conference, as the Celtics have continued their forward momentum since they pioneered their reconstruction in 2013. They are on the third all-star guard of the that entire constant veteran Kemba Walker, but they have a largely young list without the age and experience of Milwaukee or Toronto.
The Celtics are still developing, further perfecting their roles in an evolving offense and, in the cases of their pair of dynamic wings, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are still learning what tools to leave in the toolbox. They are rounding up and Tatum could find himself in an All-NBA team as soon as this summer. The extent to which the team can accelerate this growth will likely determine the Celtics’ post-season fortunes.
Now 2-2 in Orlando, Florida, bubble after a 149-115 by winning on the Brooklyn nets, the Celtics have shown during the season to do many things well, which is not surprising for a team that ranks in the top five in attack and defense. As in any team, there are natural tension points. This is a good thing because team building and improvement – both individual and team – are largely accomplished by problem solving.
In particular, Tatum’s tension point is a product of his budding celebrity, another good problem. He may score a number of ways and is doing so more efficiently this season, but where Tatum thrives in midfield he has isolation. He has become a solid pick-and-roll player, but the 22-year-old is lethal if you keep other bodies out and allow him to attack one on one. Of the 85 players who have worked in isolation this season more than 100 times, he is in sixth place by points per case and has hit more 3 points in ISO situations than anyone other than ex-MVP James Harden.
Tatum came out rolling on Wednesday. In the first minute of the game, he moved left to Daniel Theis screen and drained a 3-pointer. About a minute later, he caught a jump pass from Gordon Hayward on the left side above the arch. With only one dribbling, Tatum flew to Caris LeVert, then hoisted himself over Joe Harris to collect the ball from the glass for an easy 2-pointer – easy for Tatum, at least. After picking up two quick fouls, Tatum was sidelined for much of the first half. With the game in hand, Brad Stevens remained riding his superstar for the fourth quarter on the second night of a back-to-back – but not before Tatum emptied five 3 points in eight attempts. He finished with 19 points in 18 minutes.
Tatum’s iso exploits occur outside the confines of a Celtics system that is based on the active engagement of all five players on the floor. Organization is one of the strengths of the Celtics offense, but staying organized requires some compromise. The trick for Tatum? By choosing his ISO opportunities in his best spots against the best matchups, then expanding his repertoire. A dynamic marker draws a lot of attention, which means there is offense to be created for the other four kids. When Tatum kicks the ball and moves, the Celtics can put their defenses in a blender. The same applies if Tatum is flying around the screens staggered by the ball. He still has a constant diet of shots and four other Celtics can flow on the move (think of Paul George during his jump and beyond). Everyone wins.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown unite for 40 points while the Celtics easily defeat goals in Orlando 149-115.
Brown is a fascinating complement to Tatum. A Swiss army knife, Brown generates most of his blows in the flow of the offense, just like teammate Marcus Smart. With each passing season, he is using his exceptional strength to reach his points – more from Kawhi Leonard’s book than from George’s. It is important to emphasize that he does not lose his game or confidence if the ball does not reach him. Successful teams need generalists like Brown, who bring a rare combination of trust and selflessness.
An exhibition of Brown’s strength that generated opportunities for himself outside the bounds of a predetermined offense came just before the break on Wednesday. In an interrupted game, Smart drew a free ball and drove, only to meet a couple of defenders of the nets and kick the ball to Brown on the perimeter. With a small misstep, Brown crushed a couple of defenders, then slammed two more under the basket to smash the glass. He ended up with a game score of 21 points, including a torrid 5-for-9 3-point night.
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Both Tatum and Brown are the cornerstones of a rigorous and disciplined defense that starts with Smart, and this is a fundamental part of their appeal. The Celtics have the silliest defense in the East, for Second Spectrum, which isn’t surprising staff. When opponents try to attack Walker, the Celtics are experts at going back to kick him out of the matchup. In addition to Walker and the great Theis, the similarly sized core (including the 6-foot-3 Smart, which is a transformer that can play as big or small as you like defensively) is suitable for a modern NBA that rewards versatility. A defense can certainly thrive with Rudy Gobert, Brook Lopez or Joel Embiid, but as the league’s offenses increasingly ditch the paint, the Golden State model of a collection of long, stalwart, 6-foot-7 defenders can present as many problems. .
When we think of the teams that draw up their game plans for a group of large, perimeter-capable players who can shoot, Boston is not the first that comes to mind. Yet the top five Celtics players – Walker, Smart, Tatum, Brown and Hayward – form one of the NBA’s most adaptable teams on both sides of the ball. All but Smart shoot more than 38% from beyond the arc (Smart goes to 35%). Everyone has an appropriate handle that can start the attack and everyone can switch to almost any NBA matchup.
The most interesting question for post-season Celtics is how aggressively they will deploy the “Best Five” unit. In 3 minutes, 28 seconds Tuesday against Miami, Heat’s Bam Adebayo took advantage of the matchup, with seven points during that short stretch, including eight free-throw attempts. More disappointingly, the Celtics have converted only one field goal.
Using Best Five training will be a test of confidence for Stevens. It’s a big unknown (players have only recorded 15 minutes together before the bubble this season) with considerable ups and downs. In an ideal world, the top five will stretch their defenses to the limit, bombing at a distance and driving forcefully when those defenses close with abandon. In a catastrophic world, the Celtics will miss the size and presence of Theis, as well as his genius of Marcin Gortat projection – consequently producing more results like Tuesday.
The irregular performance of the Celtics during the first week of the bubble is of little concern. Walker continues to turn back due to a knee injury – he sat off his back on Wednesday night – and Stevens pointed out after Tuesday’s loss that Walker’s careful handling of Orlando’s minutes is a reflection of more caution than concern.
“It’s continuing to strengthen right now,” said Stevens. “When he plays a few games in the 1930s [minutes]will feel better about it. At that point, in the playoffs, he will be fine. “
Mastery of Walker’s pick-and-roll will be a crucial ingredient in the race to the Boston playoffs, along with Smart’s ability to hold and emotional leadership and the sound direction of the second part of Hayward. But the 2019-20 season of the Celtics – and their promising future – rests on the continued maturation of Tatum and Brown.
The goal of the front office in accumulating a handful of withdrawals during their reconstruction was always simple, even if their supply was complex: to transform those resources into caliber-level stars. With Tatum and Brown, the Celtics are managing to achieve this. Summer 2020 will be the biggest test ever.