BOSTON — While Jayson Tatum stayed home from the Celtics’ trip to Milwaukee before the all-star break, he watched from the television angle and congratulated the team in the group chat for their efforts. He also joked about his main takeaway from afar — the team shoots a ton of threes.
Jaylen Brown saw the same theme play out while missing Monday night’s loss to the Knicks for personal reasons. The Celtics passed side-to-side, settled and despite head coach Joe Mazzulla’s pre-game appeal to shoot more threes confidently in games where they lose, Brown brought Boston’s attention toward the rim in a 117-113 win over the Cavaliers. The Celtics attempted 32 threes, well below their season average, hitting 50% while shooting 21-for-38 (55.3%) in the paint, 12 makes coming from Brown and Tatum.
“I think we started off the game shooting way too many threes,” Brown told CLNS Media on Wednesday. “I know that’s part of how the game goes, but when you’re not making them, getting to the basket, getting some shots that we know we can hit can open things up. Even tonight, we didn’t start off the game shooting the ball fantastic, but being able to score in transition, being able to get some open shots and creating for others just opens the game up a little bit for everybody. Watching that (Knicks) game was tough. Obviously, we wanted to come back and get a win after New York beat us the last time, but hopefully we’ll see them again down the line.”
The Celtics cut their pull-up three attempts from 12 at New York in half to six against Cleveland, opting instead to create 24 other rhythm looks, including six straight makes from Al Horford. Boston improved to 31-4 when shooting above the league average of 36% from deep. They previously took the same amount of three-pointers when they won as when they lost, with their efficiency keying the difference. Monday’s loss dropped the team to 14-14 on worse shooting nights. Mazzulla typically avoids discussing alternative outlets for offense publicly.
Some of that stems from not wanting to discourage a confident offensive approach from his group, especially when piling up quality attempts and hitting them at their expected rate provides the most straightforward path to victory. The Knicks game showed how relying solely on threes could cost the Celtics across a smaller sample size in the playoffs.
Mazzulla highlighted a weak spot in New York’s defense above the break, anticipated they would not shoot well against the Knicks’ rim protection and embarked on the team’s worst three-point shooting night all season — 21.4%. Boston’s first three looks on Wednesday came elsewhere, a Horford leaner, Brown fast break and Robert Williams III finish.
“(Tatum) took what the defense gave him,” Mazzulla said. “He was aggressive and when he got into the paint and made the right play. He did that. I thought Jaylen did a great job of the same thing, I thought Jaylen really controlled the pace of the game when he had the ball … we managed the game with our offense. When we have the right spacing and we can keep teams in the half court and play our half court defense, our first shot defense is really good. We’ve still got to clean up a couple of areas, the points off turnovers, the offensive rebounds, but what I did like is we made shots and we got to the free throw line.”
The Celtics shot only one three-pointer in the first nine minutes, a rarity as they attacked in transition, hunted mid-range shots and that lone Horford look followed a post dump to Williams III. The Cavaliers hit a pair to keep the game tied at 15 early, a credit to why Mazzulla prefers taking threes, and quick ones help prevent turnovers.
A pair of long misses followed into the second quarter as Boston downsized with Mike Muscala inside, Tatum tracking down the second and firing himself up with a one-handed put back slam. Tatum and Sam Hauser swung Boston into the lead with a pair of threes, one the team didn’t lose for the rest of the night.
Tatum shined with spacing to shoot and pass from around the rim. He hit Horford for three with an over-the-shoulder pass, Brown found Williams III in transition and Marcus Smart scored twice attacking downhill in the second. Tatum ended the frame cutting, catching a pass, kicking the ball out again and repositioning himself for a baseline two-pointer. It highlighted activity missing in the first three games since the break while shooting faded.
“(I) got to the free throw line tonight, and I just got some easy ones early,” Tatum said. “Layup in transition, getting downhill, finishing at the basket just kind of opens things up. It wasn’t that I was discouraged or worried that I hadn’t shot the ball that great off the break.”
Mazzulla’s rotation adjustments opened the floor against a massive Cavaliers front line that challenged Boston in the fall, Boston staying big in spots to pile up stops and score in transition, then going small with three guards and Hauser in different spots.
Grant Williams did not play despite entering available for the first time all season. Mazzulla wanted to space the floor and maintain rim protection with Muscala, who missed games himself recently. Brown acknowledged the spot it put Grant in while emphasizing the virtue of sacrifice on the roster.
They withstood a 7-for-10 Donovan Mitchell push to within 13 points in the third and Darius Garland’s last stand toward a four-point deficit in the closing seconds. Boston hit 10-of-12 midway through the third thanks to Horford’s screening in recognition of Cavs defensive coverages. Brown cleared the way for four Tatum shot attempts at the rim, where he hit 8-of-12.
The Celtics took 14 of their 23 shot attempts in the third in the paint. Brown, showcasing his own balance, hit a three, pair of free throws and short-range bank shot to close an efficient win against the league’s best defense.
“You’ve got to get those paint touches first,” Brown said. “Usually I’m that guy. Usually I’m the one creating the paint threat, usually I’m the one trying to sink the defense in a little bit and create that pressure for us to get open threes. I think there’s a difference between swinging it around the perimeter a little bit and not really having a physical presence in the paint.”