BOSTON — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown narrowly missed scoring at least 30 points each for the 24th time in their careers. Tatum attacked the basket head-on to reach 27 on 10-of-18 shooting. Brown cut head-on toward the basket and from the baseline. He and Tatum hit three shots each from three, and Brown led all scorers with 29. It happened in a more connected manner — despite combining for one assist to each other.
The Celtics rolled through the Raptors, 117-94, and neither Brown nor Tatum exited as the team’s most important player. Kristaps Porziņģis only scored 21, and while Tatum’s +42 (+/-) dwarfed any teammate, Porziņģis’ activity playing above the three-point line, screening and pressuring the basket allowed Boston to open the paint on a night where the Celtics shot 30-for-39 with 60 points in the paint.
Aside from seven points before a late exclamation point where Tatum found Brown for an alley-oop, Boston had to execute in the half court — and Porziņģis became the connective glue between Brown and Tatum’s occasionally disconnected offensive games.
“He was able to help our pick-and-roll ball handler get some separation away from the screen,” Joe Mazzulla said. “They weren’t veering at first, so we were able to throw it back and get it to a closeout and create a second side action. Once they started veering, we were able to get their bigs away from the rim, and that’s when we were able to give it to him in the post or we were able to drive it without any rim protection … K.P. only took four shots last game, but his screening in the first half is what allowed the other guys to get going.”
Porziņģis acknowledged sacrifice would become a major part of making it work for these star-studded Celtics, with most players taking a step back in their roles and their numbers. He primarily impacted the game through Boston’s early slate as a scorer, burying big shots on opening night against the Knicks and averaging 12 shots per game through the team’s first seven games. That only fell slightly below his average in Washington last year, and he converted 54.7% from the field and 41.2% of his three-pointers.
His importance as a facilitator became apparent this week though, where he faces a learning curve in Boston’s screen-heavy system. Porziņģis needs to set the right pick, from the right angle, and position himself against certain coverages to give teammates outlets or space the floor. He grew uninvolved late in the loss to Minnesota and made mistakes in Philadelphia. Both losses saw the opposing big successfully plant in the lane and cut off Brown and Tatum.
The opposite happened against Toronto and it allowed Brown and Porziņģis to connect for some dazzling plays. Many, Porziņģis noted, happened naturally as Mazzulla allows the players to play a free-flowing offensive style.
“We’re just playing,” Porziņģis said on Saturday. “A lot of times we’re not even running, today, the few good plays that you guys saw were super random. We’re running something and we just boom, back door there. We just play off each other without any, ok, we’re gonna run this set play here. A lot of times we’re just free-styling out there and it looks good. Even tonight, I feel like we’re far from being a finished product or a team that’s like, this is it. We’re very far from that still.”
That’s not to say the Celtics ran around without a game plan. Boston’s staff instituted the Brown and Tatum two-man game that drove their offensive outburst. They simply had options and made reads. Porziņģis found spots to score from every position early in the game while contending with Jakob Poetl’s concerted effort to attack him on offense. Porziņģis made all six shots at the rim, missed a mid-range attempt and connected on 3-of-7 from the trailer spot and on pick-and-pops above the three-point line. Porziņģis’ screening and passing opened up offense on Friday before he spent his time on Saturday making handoffs and lead passes downhill.
He started the night grazing a high pass from Jrue Holiday into the basket through a foul, catching an alley-oop from Derrick White and hitting a three on his next two tries. Sizing up Poetl on the perimeter after a 3-for-4 start, he looked to his left and dumped the ball to Holiday, setting a screen and freeing him for a mid-ranger.
“(Passing) came natural whenever I was more in the trail spot and playing from there,” Porziņģis said. “Here’s a bit different, we’re doing some things a little different, but still, I find myself a lot of times in those kind of situations and playing with these guys, honestly, they make you look better too. They made me look good, J.B. making those cuts or Jrue making plays, J.T. making plays. I keep naming those guys, but they’re just that good and it makes me look good and makes everybody look good.”
Brown and Tatum always shared the potential to play off each other and manipulate defenses by playing together. Porziņģis proved more consistently capable of setting up Brown on Saturday than Tatum could. They broke into their two-man actions they’d practiced, becoming one the team’s top assist combinations (1.5) through Porziņģis rolls and Brown cuts. That’s kept the team’s top scorers mostly involved, not a given on this star-studded team.
“It’s definitely a balance,” Brown said on Friday. “Definitely a challenge. Just trying to figure that out. When to be yourself and be aggressive, then when to get other guys going and let the game come to you. I think that’s something we’re all adjusting and we’re going to have to get better at as the season goes on. There are certain things in those adjustments you’ve gotta make sure you’re doing. You still gotta make you’re playing defense, you’ve still gotta make sure you’re rebounding and you’re in the right spots.”
Porziņģis ate from his favorite spot, Tatum attacked smaller players leftover in the paint and Brown converted 12-of-20 as an efficient cutter.Still, Brown committed two early turnovers on the ball and Boston missed 7-of-10 three point attempts in the first quarter, allowing the Raptors to remain within four points despite the Celtics largely executing in the half court.
Boston transition points, previously a significant share of their offense (16%), only accounted for 10.3% of their possessions in the win. The Celtics managed 114.3 points per 100 plays, according to Cleaning the Glass, which removes garbage time. That efficiency would lead the NBA by nearly nine points.
In the third quarter, after Toronto stayed within nine at halftime, Porziņģis powered Tatum’s driving finishes, caught and made a three-pointer and dunk from Holiday, then rekindled his run with Brown, who had taken only one shot across three minutes since halftime. He hit Brown on a cutting baseline pass, then simply spaced as Brown drove on his ensuing score to keep Otto Porter Jr. out of help position. The scores seemed to energize Brown, who followed with a put-back and two defensive rebounds as the Celtics pulled ahead 88-71.
Having that bridge between Boston’s could become the key to Boston’s talent adding up to the sum of its parts. Brown and Tatum combined for only 13 passes and 1.0 assist per game to each other combined, actually up in terms of connectivity from last year. Playing the same position and likely to only switch two good defenders by screening for each other, Porziņģis can manipulate the opponent’s center, force mismatches and draw extra defensive pressure away from the Jays. Something Boston couldn’t in any prior year Brown and Tatum played.
“It’s one basketball,” Tatum said. “48 minutes. Any given night, someone might get the short end of the stick offensively. It just shows the depth of our team. Some nights, other guys might really have it going. We’ve just gotta find a balance. Throughout the course of a season, we’re gonna need everyone. So we have guys understanding tonight it might not be, offensively, but what else can you do to impact the game? There’s always a quick turnaround. We have another game on Monday. We understand that any given night it might be different guys, but everybody’s gonna have their moments offensively. There are two sides of the ball and other ways to impact the game and we know that.”