Jayson Tatum got going.
As the Celtics’ star found his scoring, Boston’s offense rose to devastating heights in a loss to Utah and offensive explosion that blew out Portland. The Celtics scored 106.3 points per game before averaging 137.5 in the back-to-back games, Boston’s two-game mark in 30 years. They converted 53.9% of their shots against a good Jazz and bad Blazers defense. A team starving for shooting buried 46.1% from three, after averaging 32.8% this season when they landed in Salt Lake City.
Tatum’s rise mirrored the Celtics’, and his creation and gravity allowed the the team to become the offensive juggernaut it’d been in past seasons when he played at his best. He averaged 34 points, 4.5 assists and 10.5 free throw attempts in the two games, driving downhill to shoot 50% and bury 35% of his threes, including 4-of-6 over Portland. That’s the simple answer, but teammates accentuating his game suddenly have this group looking like one that can challenge defenses. Even without Jaylen Brown.
Tatum didn’t play perfectly either, an encouraging trend toward more potential improvement on top of this. He still stepped into contested twos with time left on the shot clock. His mid-range share is currently his highest since 2018-19, when his reliance on that shot undermined his sophomore season.
He could’ve ran even more pick-and-roll, finding success when he did by freeing lanes to the basket. Ime Udoka wants to expose mismatches, and Marcus Smart’s advantage over C.J. McCollum became a focal point of the win in Portland. Tatum received opportunities to back down guards and flash his vintage post-up game in Utah, where he can shoot short-range jumpers, work on his floater or draw open layups or free throws.
He’s currently posting up twice per game right now, slightly lower than last season, with lower efficiency (0.76 PPP, 29th percentile). Even if shooting proves difficult in a crowded lane while backing down, he could use that leverage to pass the ball and then move on to a better shot. He’s a maestro if he can attack a player in isolation.
That’s not to suggest Tatum should become a post-banger. There’s a reason teams use it less frequently. It’s simply advantageous, when he’s at his best, to his 39% mid-range stroke. It’s telling that he had the space to do it in the Jazz loss. The Celtics are improving their spacing.
In switches, Tatum flashed a much tighter handle to scorch by Robert Covington and whatever perimeter defender the Jazz tossed at him, easily reaching the rim that noticeably had less traffic around it. He also got back to the massive total of free throws he drew last postseason, hitting 20-of-21 at the line.
Tatum sets a tone for this offense. He threw some of his best passes all season over the last two games, got on and off the ball while trusting his teammates. Dennis Schröder and he both comfortably shared the ball to score 31 points each in the win over Portland.
More encouraging things happened beyond making shots ahead of the back-to-back in Los Angeles. Developments that suggest this could be real progression for the offense, not just a momentary upward tick in threes falling. Though that’s part of it.
The Grant Williams rise
Grant Williams twice hit Portland defenders with up-fakes that drew real contests to set himself up for dribble penetration that actually shifted the defense. This came two weeks after LeBron James played free safety in the paint and left Williams all alone. These plays would’ve been unimaginable last season from him.
Williams, making his ninth start, opened the win over the Blazers with two blocks protecting the rim after Robert Williams III met early foul trouble. He banged with Rudy Gobert in Utah playing help side defense, but his largest impact on the Celtics has come on the offensive end. As a starter, he’s shooting 52.9% FG, 47.6% 3PT (20/42), while averaging 11.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG and 0.9 BPG. That’s made him a sixth or seventh man, depending on which starter is out. Mini Al indeed.
As Udoka emphasizes movement, Grant rarely stops unless he’s playing the corner. He’s tied for the fifth-most corner threes, hitting over 50% from there and keeping the ball moving out of those locations.
Williams also screens non-stop. He cuts, runs the floor and guides defenders. His scoring helps the Celtics at low-volume. His threat from three is finally drawing defenders and freeing more space in the lane for Schröder, Smart and Tatum. That’s what makes him a compelling starter, as his impact is in accentuating Boston’s stars rather than doing anything spectacular himself. Al Horford’s rise in a similar role may make that point moot.
If Grant keeps shooting and moving the ball quickly, without hesitation, he’s showing he can eventually be part of a playoff rotation for this group. Some thought he wouldn’t play at all this season with other power forwards in the mix. His rise is the most pleasant surprise for this team in years, in more ways than one.
Al Horford is shooting now
When the Celtics went down 14-2 early in Utah, Horford put the team on his back to the point where he needed to sit out Saturday with soreness in that area. He finished the loss to the Jazz 8-of-15, 3-of-8 from three, with 21 points, nine assists and six rebounds. His ability to carry the ball into the offensive zone following rebounds and steals immediately paid dividends.
The Celtics also started letting Horford run some sets and play some high posts in that game, hence his bump in assists. He started the year 28.9% from deep, starting at the four and counted on as one of Boston’s best floor spacers. Now, he’s hit 5-of-11 going back to his revenge game against Philadelphia.
Donovan Mitchell noted how Horford particularly challenged the Jazz, who want to keep Gobert in the middle, but had Horford constantly shooting over the top of him. That alone can inch the Celtics closer to being an average team from deep, and allow players like Schröder and Josh Richardson to lean on their mid-range shots without putting the Celtics at a clear mathematical disadvantages against great offenses.
The Rob and Freedom effect
It doesn’t look like Williams III is doing much out there.
Aside from a rare dribble drive late to draw free throws against Portland, he hit one shot through foul trouble and three against Utah before sitting late in favor of better matchups. When he did play in both games, he made a sizable impact in other ways.
The Celtics will still suffer from their lack of scoring personnel when their percentages come back to earth. That makes plays where Williams III gets his hands on missed shots, forcing defenses to work even harder to secure stops, impactful. Boston chased its misses, forced turnovers and did all the little things to attempt 10 more shots than the Jazz did and neutralize Utah’s shooting advantage enough to keep the game close.
Williams III is at the center of all those little things. His rolls pull defenders from the wing into the lanes. He sets excellent screens that free Tatum and others downhill and when Smart’s on the ball he still presents a dangerous lob threat when the Celtics can find him.
As he finishes an even higher percentage of his shots this year, the league leader in FG%, there’s a strong case Boston needs to find him more. Tatum called him a security blanket on Friday.
The Celtics score 9 more points per 100 possessions when Williams III plays compared to when he’s off, ranking in the 81st percentile of NBA players. He increases Boston’s effective field goal percentage by 3.1 percentage points, not to mention drastically disrupting what other teams want to do on offense. Rob is the C’s x-factor.
It’s also becoming hard to ignore his running mate at the top of the Celtics net rating ladder, Enes Freedom. Freedom ranks in the 100th percentile of NBA on-off splits, with the Celtics scoring 28 more points per 100 possessions when he plays. That’s due to his lightning quick work when he steps in the game. He posted nine points and 15 rebounds in 22 minutes Saturday, and completely keeps the other team off both boards.
His rough finishing (44%) could become his fatal flaw when the Celtics get healthy, but as a third big and offensive spark plug there’s likely no better third center in the league. Freedom’s 25.9 REB% and 19.3 OREB% are career highs and his bruising picks rank him sixth in screen assists per 36 minutes, with 7.2.
He’s so strong and Williams III’s foul trouble probably forced Udoka into playing a better matchup defensively against Jusuf Nurkic, as Freedom’s teammates and traps have helped Freedom not be exposed as often in the pick-and-roll on defense.
Freedom is part of what makes the Celtics so disruptive and one of the players doing little things to create more offense.
Schröder Schröder Schröder
Schröder’s so aggressive, fast and dominant at the rim that he’s saved the Celtics offense. Say what you want about his live ball turnovers, infuriating shots he took late against Philadelphia and Utah and his propensity to pound the rock, he’s obviously going to have some flaws. If not, Boston wouldn’t have been able to sign him and they’d be in more trouble than they already have been on O.
While it was nice (a dream) to see Payton Pritchard do anything on Saturday, he never approached Schröder-level impact, even when he played at his best last year. Schröder finishes 64.3% at the rim and dwarves the efficiency of his contemporaries who have taken roughly the same amount of shots there, like Steph Curry, Trae Young and James Harden, all three averaging below 60% inside. He’s been the biggest beneficiary of Udoka’s hunt for mismatches. When Schröder can line up a player like Bojan Bogdanovic, look out.
Udoka also like Schröder as a finisher on passing sequences from deep, where he’s hitting 47.8% of his open 3s (2.0 per game). His ability to get his shooting hand free from the elbow adds to his scoring repertoire, which Saturday showed is strong enough to rival Tatum’s like a healthy Kemba Walker once could.
Schröder is a stronger defender than Walker, more comfortable off-ball on offense (he played with Chris Paul in OKC) and is a willing ball mover despite his offensive tendencies. His edginess, however awkward when he fell over McCollum, is also part of the budding personality and identity of this team. He only needs to slow the game down in crunch time and continue to move the ball, just like Tatum.
My eyes widened when he led the Celtics with 38 points against the Bucks. Few players can do that period and Boston got him on the small mid-level exception. While he’s still a more compelling starter than sixth-man, he’s getting to his spots on the floor and scoring at will. This team lacks scoring personnel so badly, it’s hard to nit-pick 30. The only question worth asking now is whether he’s priced himself out of Boston this summer.
Smart’s return to relevance
He threw down the best dunk of his career last week, speaking of the little things. It’s remarkable to see Smart evolve this deep into his career, moving his shot selection closer to the rim, driving more often and becoming a devastating secondary ball mover away from initial attacks by Schröder and Tatum.
Smart’s posting-up more up to attack smaller guards like McCollum, something the numbers begged Brad Stevens to do that he couldn’t as a coach that didn’t like backing his players down. He’s taking his fewest threes per game (4.9) since he came off the bench in 2018-19, focusing on open ones following good passing sequences.
He downed the Raptors late last week with his jump shot, found open space against the Jazz, then dominated the Blazers for 17 points as he shot 38.5% from deep over his last nine games.
The defense speaks for itself. He’s everywhere, grabbing four steals in the first half as the league leader in that category. His relentless pursuit of loose balls return after a down season in 2020-21 and he’s become essential to gluing together an offense with disjointed pieces into efforts that border on elite over the last few nights.
Before this weekend, Smart dished at least five assists in 13 straight games and played like the best Celtic in November. His 49.1% shooting efficiency from two-point range is the second highest of his career. He’s driving 9.4 times per game, the most of his career by over two each night and flashing a 15.3 assist percentage on those plays. On catch-and-shoot plays, he’s finishing 32%.
It took a long time, the right personnel around him and a coaching change. It’s worth it though. Starting Smart next to other good defenders rose the Celtics to new heights defensively this season, and finding a way to fit his offense into that picture could raise the ceiling of this team.
Will it last? If the progress Udoka achieved on the defensive side of the ball is any indication, it could. Smart and a group that’s shooting-challenged inevitably will ride scoring waves. They’re finally learning the difficulty of good offense though, especially while so glued into a complicated defensive system. They need to create excellent shots, and when they did, they played a brand of basketball that proved fun to watch over the weekend.