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The Read & React: Morris, Celtics zone in

The Celtics might not be able to wrestle the #1 seed away from the Raptors, but they showed Saturday night that they could win a bar fight despite being undermanned.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Keith Smith: If you play pickup basketball, you know there are only two acceptable defenses: man-to-man or 2-3 zone. Everyone plays man-to-man, unless your squad is outmatched. Then you switch to 2-3 zone. Why? Because it is one of the simplest defenses to play, especially when you don’t have the talent to stick with the other team.

Two games in a row, Brad Stevens essentially imported the pickup game mentality into the NBA. First, he pulled out the 2-3 zone late in the game against the Jazz in Utah. The move allowed the Celtics to sweep a four-game road trip, with the last win coming in a notoriously hard place for road teams to win.

Then against the Toronto Raptors, with Boston clinging to hopes of getting the one seed in the Eastern Conference, Stevens went to the 2-3 zone once again. This time the Celtics blew open a close game and closed on a 20-7 run.

With a shorthanded squad that is limited on talent, Stevens is pulling every possible lever to eek out wins. It started with rotation adjustments, timely subs and “next man up” mentality. Now, Stevens is turning to the most basic of playground defenses to get wins. Add it all up and it is clear to see why the 2018 Coach of the Year stands on the Celtics sideline.

Mike DePrisco: At the start of the season, who predicted Jayson Tatum running the point down the stretch against a team like Toronto this late in the year? I wrote a piece a few days ago about how Brad Stevens has gradually given Tatum more responsibility over the course of the season.

This game showed just how much Stevens trusts his 20-year-old rookie wing. Against the sixth best defense in the NBA, Tatum went for 24 points, six rebounds, and four assists on 9-16 shooting. He showed a lot of patience in the pick and roll, which is hard to find in veteran guards let alone rookie wings.

Tatum’s comfort level as a passer has progressed at about the same rate as his scoring. The pace slows down in the postseason, and having the ability to trust Tatum to start a Boston’s actions at his size could give Stevens endless lineup combinations. I didn’t think Tatum could keep showing us more promise but here he is just breaking through more rookie barriers.

Bobby Manning: Marcus Morris arrived late to the party this season, compounding issues created by a packed schedule and short preseason. On a new roster, he was relegated to the bench and his lineups in collaboration with Jayson Tatum didn’t click. The Tatum, Morris, and Al Horford trio, projected to be the team’s closer in the front court, proved ineffective early as both of the wings navigated similar space on the floor and Morris forced shots.

Through the new year, Morris shot 41 percent and his lineup (joined by Jaylen Brown and Kyrie Irving) with Tatum and Horford posted a net rating of -13 in 94 minutes. No other lineup with Tatum courted more than 20 minutes over that stretch. Since March 11, when three players went down for Boston, the Celtics have used three lineups with Tatum/Morris for over ten minutes. With Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes and Horford they’re +20.9 (52 min), then +28.6 with Rozier, Baynes and Guerschon Yabusele (17) and +33 with Rozier, Horford and Shane Larkin (11).

The samples aren’t huge here, but they’re all substantially positive. Morris is shouldering a bigger offensive load, drawing more catch-and-shoot opportunities from Tatum. Tatum’s been able attack on the ball far more often, and they no longer look like they’re getting in the way. The emergence of this volume scoring, between both bigger and smaller lineups gives Brad Stevens options and that’s a great sign as injuries have dwindled the number of known rotations he can turn to in Round One.

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