There were some offensive staples that Brad Stevens knew he could count on. The Kyrie Irving-Al Horford pick-and-roll. The Celtics’ perimeter shooting eventually finding its level. Gordon Hayward’s all-around talent. And of course, Aron Baynes being a three-point marksman. The versatility of the Celtics starting lineup was supposed to be their main strength; anybody could be a playmaker, anybody could be a finisher. However, that versatility has largely manifested itself as uncertainty and instead, players have struggled to find their niche.
Against the Bulls on Wednesday night, you could see the starting lineup start to gel, particularly the young dynamic duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. So far, they’ve had up and down spurts to start the season, but even on that 1-4 road trip, you could see them starting to figure things out. Tatum’s mid-range, contested 2’s have started to evaporate and in their place, Tatum has made 16 of his last 34 threes. Brown struggled in Utah and Portland, but vs. Chicago, he put together his most appropriately aggressive game to date.
After the game, Brown remarked, “the ball will find you if you’re playing the game the right way.” From a philosopher king like Brown, that may sound like hippy dippy mumbo jumbo, but there’s some basketball truth to those words. Brown’s game is predicated on his athletic ability to take it to the rim. That’s what separates him from his teammates. Stevens said, “Jaylen can get to the rim at any time. I think the biggest thing is to not only finish with strength, but continue to make the right reads.”
Brown admitted to rushing his play earlier in the season, but after studying film, he’s started to find his spots:
"I think it’s very important," @Al_Horford says of when @FCHWPO attacks the rim like he did tonight. "I thought he did a great job picking his spots, reading and making the right play. When he plays like that, we just look so much better." pic.twitter.com/CLvZHONVty— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) November 15, 2018
In that first play, Brown and Horford aren’t necessarily running that pick-and-roll to give either Brown or Horford to finish the play. It’s a clear out action to get Brown’s defender on his hip and a lane to attack the restricted area. Note how Horford continues to carve out space even after Brown starts his drive.
It’s this kind of player-specific playcalling that will help the Celtics going forward. Consider how different the X’s and O’s are for Tatum. Several times last night, Tatum freed himself up running pick-and-pops with Kyrie:
Or with Marcus Smart:
Instinctively, Tatum wants to square up his defender before attacking. There have been times when that’s gotten him into trouble and he’s tried to Kobe himself out of a bad situation with a series of dribble moves and a fade away 18-footer. To break him out of those bad habits (or, depending on how you look at it, capitalize on his inner Mamba), Stevens featured Tatum more on catch-and-decide touches with Tatum’s defender a step behind. Unlike Brown, Tatum’s natural preference is to use skill over force to get his shot off so it’s preferably to get him in space on the wing.
These are subtle little touches as the Celtics try to tinker and tweak their offense to their roster’s specific talents. What may have started as an all-inclusive, diplomatic experiment to empower everybody to discover themselves has started to become a reductive process to single out what each player does best.