It’s been difficult to focus on the positives through two difficult preseason losses. While the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers both looked pretty good, the Boston Celtics sputtered out of the gate. Injuries to key veterans, heavy minutes for unproven youngsters and the constant juggling of rotations are all causes of the frustration.
They’re all also likely to stick around into the regular season.
The constant in Boston is Jayson Tatum, who now has to embrace a larger role as the unquestioned alpha on offense. He’ll do most of the heavy lifting and captain the attack, but he can’t do it all himself. Instead of watching his shooting performance in the first two preseason games, I focused on his playmaking and the attention he garnered, trying to figure out where and how that can be leveraged into maximizing the outputs of his uncertain supporting cast.
“You saw in the bubble, his passing was big time. He was on the money and he made the right reads. And he was making the right read quickly,” Brad Stevens said of Tatum’s playoff performance. “He draws a lot of attention and he usually makes the right play.”
Tatum must also adjust to some of the requirements on the shoulders of an alpha. One such prerequisite: getting to the free throw line. Last season, he only took 4.7 free throws a game. He’s adjusted to increase that number, starting in the bubble. During the 2019 NBA Playoffs, that number rose to 7.2, and shows no signs of letting down. As someone who converts about 83% of his free throws of his career, if he keeps up the pace he set in the bubble, he’ll generate six points per game from the free throw line. The Celtics need that scoring.
Whenever Tatum sees a big man or a lane in front of him, he’s been angling to create contact and get to the charity stripe. When the Nets would give him downhill driving opportunities, Tatum would long-step his way to the body and get two free throws for his troubles.
Those opportunities will be few and far between, especially when Kemba Walker sits. The Celtics are thin on high-level scorers and are unproven in terms of catch-and-shoot skill. When Tatum drives to the lane, he’s likely to be the focal point of defenses, collapsing on him to raise the degree of difficulty of any shot and encouraging a kickout.
Most likely, the paint will be packed like a Newbury Street snowbank:
Even on the perimeter, Tatum faces such pressure. Everyone on the defense is afraid to rotate away from him, taking their chances that an open shot elsewhere might be better than allowing Tatum anything resembling comfort.
After initially forcing the ball out of Tatum’s hands, two Nets closed out to Tatum on a skip pass, a miscommunication that can occur on breakdowns. Instead of communicating a scramble out to fix the rotation, both defenders stayed, throwing their arms up to pseudo-trap Tatum. He made the appropriate read, resulting in a look at the rim for Marcus Smart:
None of this is rocket science, nor unexpected. With the strides Tatum has made scoring the ball over the last year, the absence of scorers around him and how much offense he creates one-on-one, common sense dictates that defenses will hone in to stop Boston’s top star.
But what will the Celtics do about it?
Thus far, the aptly-named Smart has been the one to step up and capitalize on the extra attention paid to Tatum. Part of that has to do with the veteran savvy of Smart, who has played with illustrious scorers like Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas before. He knows how to move without the ball, a skill he’s gained out of necessity as he tried to be impactful offensively despite the inconsistent shooting.
The other part of Smart’s preseason capitalization comes from the guys he’s guarded by. Starting at the point, typically the smallest defenders will mark him like Seth Curry, Shake Milton or Kyrie. They’re either afraid of switching onto a larger Celtics wing or guarding Smart because he’s the least-threatening perimeter threat for Boston or both.
There will be moments where Smart’s defender stares down Tatum as soon as Jayson puts the ball on the floor. Thankfully, the Celtics space the court appropriately, allowing backdoor cuts for when defenders turn a blind eye. Tatum is unselfish and a good enough passer to hit those openings:
The Celtics can’t win games on backdoor cuts alone. They need to find ways to leverage the attention Tatum gets to create quick-developing openings for others; the rim won’t always be vacant. Even in the clip above, Smart was fouled; it’s not like he’s getting four or five naked layups a game.
To wit, Brad Stevens places Tatum into a wrinkle within their base offense to create openings. The Celtics run a two-man split action when the ball finds its way into the hands of a trailing big, usually Daniel Theis or Robert Williams. The split action can be a flare screen or a down screen, whatever the two players involved negotiate. The result is always the same: one will go high (to the wing or off a handoff) and one low (to the rim, post or dead corner).
When Smart is covered by a poor defender, he’ll seek out Tatum in these actions, screening his man to force a switch and create the advantage for the Celtics. Tatum easily roasted Milton one-on-one in the post during the preseason opener, providing a glimpse into what may be a common source of buckets for him:
Not all defenses can or will get caught on this action — and some purposefully switch. The Nets, for example, seem content on switching through actions with their versatile defensive personnel.
To counter those, Smart will speed through the action, never making contact on the screen and darting high for the handoff. He banks on two defenders fixating on Tatum as the primary threat near the rim and gets open looks as a result:
The split action is difficult to guard, especially when one elite scorer is involved. That’s why it’s been a staple of the Stevens playbook in years past; with many talented wings, it was chaos to guard.
Hopefully, Tatum rises to an MVP-caliber level this season. The team cannot play through him every possession, regardless of his increased output. However, they need to find ways to use him as a decoy, to leverage the attention he gets into creating quality looks elsewhere. Boston struggled offensively through the first two preseason games, though the defensive attention paid to Tatum confirmed what we all knew: this is his team now, and the C’s will go as he goes.