Grant Williams exited Vivint Arena as an easy target. Despite shooting 7-for-12 from three and finishing the Celtics’ fourth quarter offensive efforts by knocking down a trio of threes in succession, he took matters into his own hands with 5.0 seconds remaining when he shouldn’t have. A dribble handoff play for Jayson Tatum broke down with five seconds remaining and Williams found himself trapped at the rim with no option other than to toss up a hesitant layup Walker Kessler blocked to secure a 118-117 Jazz win.
“They took Lauri (Markkanen) off the ball,” Williams told reporters in Salt Lake City. “So I got open against Lauri. As soon as I caught it, I was deep in the paint … I was running in the lane. So I took the dribble, tried to look up and see if anybody was available. J.B. fell to my left, potentially had Sam to my right for a shot … then there was probably three seconds left on the clock. J.T. was in the back court … so it was like, I’ve gotta get a shot up at least.”
The play before went nearly as poorly and proved more indicative of a growing issue for Tatum and the Celtics’ offense, which ranks 13th since the all-star break. Tatum entered the offensive zone from the back court in a familiar alignment and launched a pull-up three with 30 seconds remaining and over 20 on the shot clock, trying to establish a two-for-one while trailing by one point. The miss allowed Utah to run the clock down to 5.0 seconds before Talen Horton-Tucker turned the ball over and gave Boston one more chance.
Tatum fell to 29.1% on pull-up three point shots this season, which account for over half of his long shot attempts.
Tatum finished 4-for-12, 3-for-8 from three, and didn’t score in the second half as his shooting slump continued. Pull-ups, like his final attempt, factored more heavily into Boston’s offense recently, leading Tatum on a 30.1% 3PT slide this month. Will Hardy’s double teams stopped him from stepping around screens into jumpers, where he commonly finds them and his once-deadly step back continues to elude him against tight defense.
They stem from Joe Mazzulla’s desire to bend defenses with Tatum’s pressure, leading to space for others. Tatum’s assists increased to 5.4 per game in the new year, while his efficiency fell to 44.2% FG. The first half saw him successfully pass out of the double teams and set up teammates for looks around the basket, helping the Celtics establish a 19-point lead in the first half. That’s why many teams refuse to double him at the point of attack. Hardy’s left Tatum out of the action into the second half though, while teammates isolated.
Guards keyed Boston’s playmaking during the start of the season, when Tatum averaged 30.5 PPG, 4.1 APG and 2.8 turnovers per game while shooting 48% from the field and 36.5% from three. Whether rolling him to the rim, switching him into mismatches to score from two-point range, driving him downhill away from the ball or producing jump shots in those catch-and-shoot situations, the game looked easier for him off-ball.
Run-outs also became an easier source of offense for a group that thrives while playing at its fastest. Against Portland, Tatum took 10 of his 16 attempts from three, seven on pull-ups and step-backs, a strategy Mazzulla explained after the game. Marcus Smart’s most recent injury put Tatum back on the ball more, holding the ball for 5.6 minutes per game compared to 4.3 during the team’s 21-5 start.
“I don’t know the difference, if there was more (dribble penetration and swings) earlier in the year,” Mazzulla said, asked about the layers of playmaking present early on during the season. “But some of those are important, because if they go in, the defense is going to change how they’re guarding you, and so, if you’re going to have low pick up points and you’re going to have great shooters and great players bring the ball down the floor, you have to be able to knock down that shot to put the defense in a spot where they’re going to come out and get stretched, which allows dribble penetration and two-on-ones and the ability to move the ball, and so those shots, whether they go in or not, are extremely important because of the pressure that you put on the defense.”
That approach worked in the Mar. 8 home win over the Blazers. Tatum caught fire in the third quarter and extended Boston’s lead from 13 points to 22 with three consecutive threes. Portland needed to extend its defense, allowing Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon and Grant Williams to close the game out with 6-for-8 shooting inside.
Since that win, the Celtics increased their rim looks to 26.8 per game (65.8%) after spending much of the season in the bottom-10 in terms of attempts. Mazzulla, after the Celtics missed several layups on their way to 65% shooting in the paint in that win, took the opportunity to point out layups aren’t always easier.
They have been for Jaylen Brown (68.9% FG inside, 34% 3PT) and Tatum (69.4% FG, 34.5% 3PT) though, especially with both players combining to draw 13.9 free throws per game this season, compared to 8.1 for the rest of their teammates combined. Tatum only took four two-pointers in Utah, leading to six free throw attempts after nearly reaching a career-high with 18 at the Blazers.
The Celtics need Brown and Tatum active in the paint area as finishers and creators to counteract some of the team’s three-point variance. Saturday’s loss to the Jazz became a rare night, only the second of their last 19 games and fifth in 38 all season where they lost while exceeding 36% three-point shooting.
“It’s a team we were based on last year, trying to keep teams under 100 (points),” Brown said in Minnesota. “This year, we’ve been focused more on our offense, but I would like to see that emphasis put on the defensive end as well.”
Boston’s defense, ranked No. 4 in efficiency but lacking forcefulness in spot moments like the loss at Utah, gave away 17 offensive rebounds to the Jazz, allowed dribble lanes to Talen Horton-Tucker and Lauri Markkanen all game, cuts to Kessler and threes to Ochai Agbaji all night.
It’s worth wondering what impact missed shots, during a 4-for-12 night and an 0-for-4 second half where he grabbed one board, have on Tatum’s defense in a season where he’s allowing opponents to shoot 47.8% compared to 42.8% last year. Players talk about offense dictating defense, and Ime Udoka used to stressed Tatum leaning into his defense on nights where he missed shots.
Tatum fell to 23.5% from three through 51 shots in five games on the road trip, decreasing his efficiency to 30.8% in March and 33.5% in the new year. Mazzulla pointed toward volume while explaining Brown and Tatum’s relatively lower share of makes compared to past seasons. Now, with an emphasis on taking the harder shots from deep, sacrificing makes to change the shape of the floor, the Celtics place more emphasis on other players, like Grant, Brogdon, White and Marcus Smart making those open looks, compared to working to create for Tatum.
Brown, committing to shots on the lane for 68.9% of his attempts, improved to 50.9% from the field in March with a 9-for-19 performance against Minnesota. Instead of involving him in the final two plays, Mazzulla opted for a Tatum pull-up three and a dribble handoff that likely would’ve resulted in another Brown jumper.
Defenders guarded Tatum tightly on 3.4 of his 10.0 three-point looks per game since the break, forcing him to shoot 19.5% on those attempts, compared to his 35.2% success against that coverage early in the year. The methodology of using Tatum to free teammates and open the offense through the flow of games checks out. When he and the team need baskets though, Boston struggles to adjust away from a reliance on three-point makes.
“The physicality could’ve not waned, when we got up, we didn’t do a good job of maintaining that same effort and physicality on the defensive end, and our offense stalled. We were getting all the looks we wanted, we just stopped making shots,” Grant told reporters in Utah. “When you’re not able to put those points in the basket, it probably would’ve looked different if those shots would’ve fallen. They’re open looks, but they didn’t, so we’ve gotta respond.”