BOSTON — Tom Thibodeau described how most teams play nine-man rotations then tighten it up as the season goes on before Monday’s game against the Knicks. It didn’t take long for Thibodeau and Joe Mazzulla to toss away whatever depth search they embarked upon early this year.
RJ Barrett (migraine) sat and Josh Hart played 43 minutes in his place. Jayson Tatum approached 40, and unloaded on New York for nearly the entirety of the final frame thanks to short bursts of bench play without him that finally finished in the positive (+5) for a Boston team starving for consistent depth contributions Both teams played eight players in the Celtics’ eventual 114-98 win, and Boston’s bench outscored New York’s, 19-15.
“Every year’s a different year,” Jaylen Brown said about the second unit. “Trying to figure out what play style and what sets can create a rhythm and a flow and keep things going out there. Each game has been different, but we’ve been figuring it out as the season goes on, finding continuity with different guys, different looks, different sets out there. A little bit of everything, definitely a play style is more the emphasis. I want to play fast, I want to get up, push the ball, put pressure on teams, create driving lanes and just get teams playing behind, playing on their heels. That makes the game a lot easier, that means we can get more shots up, we can get more stops, we can run, more transition opportunities. When I’m on the floor, I want to play faster. That’s my emphasis.”
Al Horford took out Tatum early in the first quarter in a slight alteration to the typical rotation. Boston and New York scored back-and-forth through the first quarter, and Mazzulla saw missed Celtics layups empowering the Knicks’ transition attack. Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart hit tough shots in the lane to push New York ahead 15-14, and after a few more rough possessions both ways, Mazzulla took Jrue Holiday out too. Brown missed a transition layup and Kristaps Porziņģis spun into traffic, accentuating those woes, but they ran back on defense and defended the rim against heavy Knicks offensive rebounding pressure.
Porziņģis and Sam Hauser grabbed tough rebounds, Brown chased down Immanuel Quickley and Horford switched onto Brunson and stopped him. An extra Hauser pass to Horford in the post allowed him to shake Donte DiVincenzo for a dunk and Brown shook him with a dribble move to record a driving dunk. After Boston’s bench held the line, only losing its minutes 9-8, Tatum returned and hit Hauser with a go-ahead three.
“They’re starting to develop an identity of what it looks like when they’re on the floor together,” Mazzulla said. “Their ball movement. Their taking pride in defense, and they’re doing different things. Our press looks a little bit different when our second unit’s in. We showed a couple possessions of zone and then we were able to change up the matchups. Our second unit is really developing an identity of a free-flow offense and then being creative on the defensive end.”
That six-minute stretch preserved Tatum for a pivotal, full fourth quarter effort where he shot 6-for-8 and buried four threes, including a difficult leaning and-one over Hart that boosted Boston from ahead by three to seven. Holiday, who scored his 15,000th point, followed with a breakout three set up by Hauser’s defensive rebound. The Celtics led by 10 and never looked back on their way to a 16-point advantage after Tatum scored eight straight.
Boston’s fate swung enormously on Tatum’s availability entering the night. The Celtics outscored Toronto by 42 in Tatum’s minutes on Saturday, compared to a +9 for Brown. Opponents topped Boston by over 16 points per 100 possessions with Tatum off the floor before the closing stretch in the third quarter built an eight-point lead for Tatum to extend into the fourth. The Celtics lost the non-Tatum minutes in all nine games prior to Monday except for the 51-point win over Indiana, where Boston’s bench lost those minutes in the first half.
Porziņģis had broken a 72-72 tie on a pick-and-pop with Tatum where he got fouled behind the line. Tatum sat after logging nearly 10 minutes against Knicks double-teams in a game that resembled a playoff rotation and intensity — both sides trading blows until late. Defensive scheming helped the Celtics manage a 76.5 defensive rating without Tatum despite scoring only 100 points per 100 possessions in those nine minutes.
Brown drew free throws attacking Quentin Grimes. Payton Pritchard found Hauser for one of his four threes on six attempts. Brown snuck around Randle’s back to double and strip him in the post, carrying the ball in transition for a dump-off to Holiday for three. Boston led by 10, not entirely leaving its second unit concerns in the past, but finding a way to steal Tatum rest, empower Brown and experiment with new defensive looks.
“We won those tonight,” Mazzulla said. “I think that unit is going to continue to develop an identity, because it looks different. Tonight, there was no Luke. Sometimes it’s Luke (Kornet), sometimes it’s Oshae (Brissett), sometimes it’s double-big, sometimes it’s not, so that unit has to find it’s identity. It takes a little more time, but I thought we went to some stuff with Jaylen that really puts him in the best possible situation. We got six points out of stuff that he drilled today. He’s doing a great job of finding a couple things that really work for him, what he’s comfortable with and then we’re executing those.”
The Celtics followed a similar trajectory of being unable to win without Tatum last season as Brown-led bench units became a sore spot in his otherwise All-NBA campaign. Boston fared 6.2 points per 100 worse with Brown on the floor compared to off last year, finishing in the 21st percentile of NBA players. The Celtics received a 4.7-point boost in their net rating with Tatum on the floor. Entering Monday, Brown ranks among the worst on-off players (-24.3) over an early sample with Tatum’s differential as the best in the NBA (+41).
Those numbers hinge on second-unit shot making, which Malcolm Brogdon buoyed a year ago and Hauser, Pritchard and even Horford struggled with until this past week. Hauser began the longest stretch of double-figure scoring of his career last Monday in Minnesota. He’s shot 19-for-36 (52.8%) from three since, changing the complexion of the bench lineup that’s centered more on three players. Mazzulla leaned on Pritchard for 30 minutes on Friday with Horford resting, 24 more on Saturday and played him for key stretches in a third straight win over New York. All highlighted by bench contributions. Monday’s 63.6% showing proved to be the best yet.
“We have such a talented group of guys that it’s not on me or Jayson to get them going, or J.B.” Holiday said. “Based off the way we play and the character and IQ we have, it just happens. You see Sam coming off the bench throwing up threes and they’re going in. P picking up full-court and making a difference. Oshae out there offensive rebounding … we mesh well together … everybody loves a dog, somebody that’s gonna go out there and changes the game. It might not be scoring and it might not be assists, it might just be the dirty work. (Pritchard) can score and he can do all that, but you see him offensive rebounding, crazy. You see him picking up full-court … stuff like that, I like.”