A lot of things need to break right for the Celtics to be Eastern Conference contenders this year. The most immediate concerns are pretty obvious: Hayward’s health and the center position. Beneath that layer is a more ambiguous need for the Celtics’ younger players to generally improve and, in a perfect world, make ‘the leap’ into stardom.
In measuring player improvement, it’s easy to stick to the obvious stats that are easy to track - points, assists, and the like. But the real leap comes from better court awareness and decision making. These are the things younger players might need a year (or three) to figure out before they can excel in the NBA.
I’d be thrilled if Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum could both become perennial 40% three-point shooters, but we’ve already seen them hit that mark for at least one season (or get close to it), and it didn’t mask their other flaws: tunnel vision on offense and poor passing. To me, this is the basis of Boston’s well documented offensive struggles for the last two years, in that their offense feels a little to linear sometimes. Either the jump shots fall or they don’t. Great offenses don’t have this problem because they can do what the Celtics are trying to learn right now: move the ball and create easier shots. These things can be done at the same time, as we can see Tatum passing out of a tough spot to an open Brown instead of forcing his offense:
More than anything, I think this is made possible by OG Anunoby playing too far off Jaylen with Serge Ibaka already collapsing on the play, but regardless, this is not a pass Tatum would have made last season.
The same can be said (to a lesser extent) for passing on a fast break:
You know what my favorite thing is that I haven’t seen yet through two games? It’s Tatum, after getting the ball stripped, throwing his arms in the air and pleading for a whistle.
As Tatum’s mid-range shot rate decreases, Brown’s shot selection follows suit. Hopefully his heat map from last night as in indication of what his offense will look like moving forward:
Now, watch this clip with that image in mind:
Jaylen tries to get to his preferred three-point shooting spot, and Anunoby quickly moves past a screen to run him off of it. Then, Kyle Lowry cuts off Brown’s path into the paint, where we can see the bulk of his attempts coming from. Brown might have still made the ensuing pass to Hayward last season, but not before a fruitless attempt to work in isolation while the shot clock ticks away. It seems that the Celtics are opting to pass more if the open shot they get isn’t in their sweet spot, which is why Brown doesn’t pull up just inside the three-point line before Lowry picks him up.
And speaking of breaking last season’s bad habits:
This is the second fake-and-make three for Tatum in two games after watching him step in for long two-pointers all last season. These quick decisions for Tatum and Brown were huge swings against Toronto and could have easily lost them the game had those plays gone wrong.
This is what meant earlier when I said that Boston’s offense relied too heavily on making shots; being able to create shots that otherwise wouldn’t have been there is a bigger development. Simply playing the game with your head up can create opportunities like this one:
Also of note: this is easily the fastest I’ve ever seen Gordon Hayward run in a Celtics uniform.
The players best suited for Brad Stevens’ “everybody eats” offense are the ones who can impact the game outside of scoring. For the Jays to fit in with Kemba Walker and Hayward, there would have to be a lot more ball movement than last season and while it’s still a work in progress, things seem to be trending in the right direction if the Celtics continue to play unselfish basketball.