BOSTON — T.J. McConnell seemed to draw Jayson Tatum every time down the floor in the first quarter. Tatum hit back-to-back leaning mid-range shots over the smaller Pacers guards to get himself going against Indiana’s bench unit. He drew a foul lining up McConnell in isolation, then swung the ball against an overloading Pacers defense to Sam Hauser in the corner for three — pointing Hauser’s way after his difficult shooting night in Washington.
Mismatch-hunting and spacing became the crux of the team’s historic offense last year. Only, it wavered and teams found ways to hedge away from the weakest offensive threat on the floor, creating stagnancy. Not anymore.
“I think we showed like, two clips the other day in film where all five guys had an advantage at the same time,” Joe Mazzulla said pre-game. “What are you gonna tell them? It’s just a matter of them learning to trust each other and learning to get a feel for the game and what’s going on in that particular time. Who’s playing well? Do we need an isolation? Do we need ball movement? Do we gotta generate a great shot and there’s not gonna be, many times, a wrong answer — and you can’t coach the result on that. You have to coach that we have the right intention. And so if we coach the intention, we’ll be able to work through those things together.”
The Celtics’ offensive onslaught to begin the season flowed through Tatum, who scored 30 points on Wednesday against a Pacers team missing Tyrese Haliburton, exposing Andrew Nembhard, Bruce Brown, Buddy Hield and others to switches against Celtics scoring wings without the ability to punch back offensively. When the Pacers hedged on Jaylen Brown and Tatum, Derrick White started 3-of-4 from three and Jrue Holiday dribbled into floaters. Kristaps Porzingis sacrificed in the 155-104 win, scoring 13 points on 3-for-7 shooting, while Boston’s other starters generated 79 points — almost enough to surpass Indiana’s scoring total.
Boston’s offense functions similarly to the approach Mazzulla took in year one, creating cross-matches in the half court and transition, or advantage situations like two-on-ones behind screens to create quality shots. Wrinkles allowed by new personnel and a greater width of offensive skills across the starting lineup made the offense virtually unguardable, with post-ups and mid-range (11th in att., 46.7% FG) looks from the team’s stars creating an inside-out approach to offense. Boston entered the night second in post-up possessions per game behind Denver (1.23 PPP) and finished sixth in isolation efficiency (1.19 PPP), up from 0.91 points per possession last season.
“I like the balance,” Mazzulla said on Monday in Washington. “Because we’re not going down there to score every time, we’re going down there to make a play. It’s given us offensive balance, it’s given us the ability to stop a run, or continue a run. As long as we go with the mindset of making a play, whether for yourself or for others, and we have the proper spacing, I think it’s something that’s important for our team to continue to do.”
“It really helps our switch attack, when we’re able to post versus switching and force help and have guys have to come down, it creates two-on-ones and gets step-in shots like that,” he continued on Wednesday.
The three-pointer remains central too, Boston burying three straight on the way to a 5-for-8 start from behind the line in the first quarter, but the Celtics balanced that with eight two-pointers, hitting seven as their scorching finishing efficiency around the rim improved to 69.4% (T-5th). The Celtics entered the night with the highest three-point attempt rate as a share of their total shots (47.8%), roughly even with their figure from one year ago.
Meanwhile, the defense digged, doubled and helped to cut off Andrew Nembhard’s playmaking at the point of attack and Indiana’s offense stalled on the way to a 5-for-37 night from three. The Pacers wanted to play fast and play with randomness offensively that ended up turning erratic and flowing in the other direction for transition opportunities, which the Celtics now fourth in fast break possessions (22.8) per game and sixth in efficiency (1.22 PPP) during them.
“Adding K.P. and Jrue really helps,” Hauser said. “I think everybody’s playing a little more free, taking what the game gives them and I think that’s what’s led to a lot of big wins to start the year here. It’s really just us trying to find some sort of advantage on offense to attack the defense. That’s just playing free.”
Those layers beyond the team’s three-point shooting created expanded offensive flexibility for a team that finished 13-19 last season when shooting below league average from three. To begin this year, Boston beat the Knicks, who outshot the Celtics 43.9-30.8% from three and survived a 48.5% night from deep by the Heat on Friday. Washington finally presented less of a perimeter threat (30.6%) and while the Pacers shot abysmal (13.5%), the Celtics’ starters only attempted 20 threes, with Brown and Tatum scoring 46 points on six combined three-point attempts. Boston’s three-point attempt rate fell to third at 45% after the game — more balanced.
Holiday set the tone by opening Wednesday’s win with a post-up against Bennedict Mathurin. White’s offensive rebound turned into a Porzingis dunk, the team’s 12.3 offensive boards per game (7th) another rejuvenated layer to Boston’s offense.
Ahead 26-20, Brown scored bumping through Aaron Nesmith in the lane, then Tatum entered the post, freeing up White for back-to-back threes to expand the lead to 44-27. White stepped into the mid-range pulling up over Myles Turner to begin the second quarter. The bench soon boosted Boston ahead by 20, Oshae Brissett feeding Tatum on the break after a steal and Payton Pritchard putting back his own miss.
That second unit, much maligned following a fourth quarter meltdown two days earlier in Washington, got pulled into the film room by Mazzulla. Against Indiana, they played organized, got to their spots and spacing on offense, and they ran plays for Hauser with purpose. The lowest-scoring bench in the NBA entering the game, generating 46 points in the fourth quarter while Gino Time played and a reverse dunk attempt by Svi Mykhailiuk excited Al Horford and the other veterans along the sideline. Another scene reminiscent of the dominance of 2008.
This team’s doing it with offense, now ranked No. 1 on that end and No. 7 defensively, with no slowing in sight.
“The ball has energy,” Holiday said. “When it gets to stagnant or you’re playing one-on-one, it can get pretty dry, but … when you’re moving like that and curling to the basket, there is a good feeling of getting your man a bucket. If I’m setting the screen and he scores off of me setting a screen, I’m still making something happen without necessarily being in the play. Being able to trust each other and knowing we have great scorers on this team, and being able to sacrifice. It might not be my night tonight scoring, but there’s something else I can do.”
“We can get to another level.”