Keith Smith: There is a saying that coaches love about long road trips: “If you’re going to go all the way there, you might as well win the game.” The Celtics did just that, overcoming a 22 point deficit in London. They did it in some loud ways with the great plays we’ve come to expect from Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They did it in the more subtle ways, with Al Horford quietly doing his thing on the way to a really solid game. But what really turned things around was, as it has been all year, the defense turning up the heat.
JJ Redick got out of the box early from the outside and Joel Embiid was hurting Boston inside, either with his scoring or his passing. But Brown, along with some bench help from Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis put the clamps on Redick and Embiid and it changed the game.
Redick had 22 points for the game, but 13 of them came in the first quarter and 18 in the first half. Starting late in the first quarter, Brown stayed attached to Redick. After watching Redick go 5-of-5 shooting in the first, he got only seven more attempts the rest of the game. Most of that work was done by Brown, but both Smart and Rozier did a great job of chasing Redick through a maze of screens and denying him good touches.
Those three also made pests of themselves in passing lanes, as they combined for seven steals on the game. Smart in particular came up with a few when Boston was snatching the momentum back after the rough start.
Not to be left out, Theis helped changed the game with his defense on Embiid. Embiid is not only huge, but he possesses uncommon quickness for a man his size. Time and time again he was getting by Aron Baynes early on and it was causing defensive breakdowns. When Theis came in, he was able to move his feet and stay in front of Embiid. He was also able to contest shots without fouling, which is harder than it sounds because Embiid tends to use a variety of tricky moves in and around the post area.
Lastly, all four combined to use a tactic Brad Stevens rarely goes to: the double-team. For almost the entire second half, whenever Embiid put the ball on the floor, a double immediately came. Most often it came from Smart, Rozier or Brown. And they usually came from the other side of the floor. By using this strategy, it forced Embiid to attempt difficult cross-court passes. This resulted in several deflections and a few turnovers, as once the Celtics had the Sixers down, they kept them there.
Simon Pollock: Celtics prized rookie Jayson Tatum posted an impressive 11-1-3 against the 76ers...in the third quarter alone. After a snooze of a first half, Tatum woke up with an easy transition trey and never looked back, creating shots of the dribble and showing version with one particularly impressive wraparound pass from under the basket, along the baseline to the corner shooter.
But maybe that’s burying the lede. There was plenty of offensive flash from Boston in the second half, but the real notch in the Celtics belt came on the boards. Philadelphia entered the game leading the league in rebounding, while Boston entered at 11th. The Celtics came away from this one winning the battle for the boards 46-37, thanks in part to a +9 advantage in offensive rebounds.
It’s exciting to see players all over the roster step up their offensive game, but it’s even more encouraging to see the second effort under the rim pay off.
Matt Chin: This was the freshest version of Marcus Morris that we’ve seen in a while. His 19 points are the most that he’s produced since early November. Simply put, he bleeds self-assurance, and although some might nit pick at his shot selection, the Celtics need someone on their bench unit who can assert their offensive will. After some early season disapproval regarding his non-starter status, Morris seems to realize now that his shot creation skills are best suited with the second team.
Now that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have developed into known offensive focal points, they will inevitably garner more defensive attention in the second half of the season. Morris will be depended upon to fill in the gaps when the opposing team swarms Boston’s primary options. Tonight was a great confidence booster.
The Celtics’ identity lost an edgy toughness when Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas were traded, and Morris doesn’t back down from anyone. I love that he took exception to Ben Simmons’ hard screen, and that bulldog mentality can be beneficial when unleashed in the appropriate spots.
Bill Sy: An NBA season is 82 games. It’s a six month grind that wears teams down and then expects them to be at their best for the playoffs. The players suffer a grueling gauntlet of physical attrition and mental fatigue. For older vets, it’s a matter of staying sharp and being consistent with what they do best. For younger players, it’s growing comfortable in their role and gaining confidence in the little things. For Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown however, it’s been an accelerated course in NBA Starter 101 and they’ve excelled so far.
Both were great in London against the Sixers (Tatum: 16/4/2, Brown: 21/4/2), but what I’ve been most impressed with as the calendar has turned to 2018 is their progression as playmakers attacking close outs. Earlier in the season, if they got the ball on a kick out from Kyrie Irving or Al Horford, it usually resulted in a shot or a drive to the basket. During this 7-game winning streak, they’ve started look for their teammates more and making that 3rd and 4th pass to the open man.
So, while other rookies and sophomores are hitting the wall, Brown and Tatum have found yet another gear and given Stevens a new weapon for his growing arsenal. It’s a role usually reserved for that third superstar of a Big Three—ahem, Gordon Hayward 3/23—but Kid N’ Play have started to fill that void. You don’t expect teams to improve dramatically 44 games into their campaign and yet these two kids have exceeded expectations.