1. It’s like a broken record at this point. For whatever reason, the Celtics seem to play just fine when they’re down a couple of key guys. It’s not to suggest they are better without rotation players, because they aren’t. But it is a testament to the team being tough-minded and together. That’s a big part of why Danny Ainge didn’t feel the need to make a trade at the deadline when nothing he liked materialized.
2. Jayson Tatum made the All-Star leap, but he might just be making the superstar leap too. He scored 32 points on 10-of-19 shooting, including a career-high seven made three-pointers. He also handed out six assists, to go along with his always solid defense. Tatum had a rough November, as he shot some of the worst percentages of his career. Since then, he’s averaged 23 points per game on 46/40/85 shooting splits. What’s changed is his ability to take over games. He started early against the Hawks with this strong finish through contact:
Boston has a lot of options to take big shots late in games, but Tatum is starting to have that look. You just feel like something good is coming when he has the ball late in the clock and the Celtics need a score:
Tatum showed signs of all of this over his first two seasons and now in his third year, he’s knocking on the door of superstardom.
3. The Celtics staged a bit of a block party on Friday night. Boston blocked eight shots, with five of those coming from Tatum and rookie Romeo Langford. Tatum has gotten really good at blocking shots from behind, as he does to Kevin Huerter here:
Later in the game, he got Huerter again:
As for Langford, he’s shown good instincts as a help defender. Stepping up to block John Collins, one of the league’s better finishers, at the rim is no joke:
4. Let’s stick with Langford, because he played the best game of his young career. He scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds, in addition to his three blocks. His scoring output was encouraging, because he got to the line six times in addition making five shots from the floor. When the ball came his way late, with the Hawks on a run, Langford stepped up and buried it:
Moments later, he showed good instincts to cut vs staying camped in the corner:
If Langford can keep contributing as a defender, as that’s how players earn minutes under Brad Stevens, he might just emerge as the bench scorer Boston has been looking for. Also, doesn’t Langford’s skill-set, demeanor and look on the floor remind you a little bit of rookie Jaylen Brown?
5. One of the Celtics other rookies, Grant Williams, has been a part of things all year. He got the start against Atlanta and once again delivered despite a quiet box score. After starting his career 0-for-22 from downtown, Williams never lost his confidence and continued to let it fly without hesitation:
Since making his first three-pointer, Williams is up to over 39% from behind the arc.
He’s also a very smart player. Watch Williams find the soft spot in the Hawks zone defense to get the layup:
And you know Williams has earned Stevens’ trust, when he gets the call to make a play on an ATO:
6. Atlanta was similarly shorthanded to Boston. Unlike the Celtics, the Hawks don’t have the depth of talent to make up for it. They were able to keep it close in the first half by going to a couple of different zone defense looks. They used a 1-2-2 look, as well as a 3-2 trapping look designed to take away three-pointers, after the Celtics started hot from outside. It took the Boston a long time to figure those looks out, including a scoring drought of over five minutes in the first quarter.
In the second half, the Hawks didn’t really go back to the zone, but instead employed an aggressive trapping defense. The goal was to get the ball out of the hands of Tatum and Kemba Walker. Like in the first half, it took the Celtics a little bit to figure it out.
Adjusting to in-game defensive looks, especially ones like the Hawks employed to junk the game up, is something to watch for Stevens and the Celtics. With four very capable scorers in Tatum, Walker, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, opponents are going to go to more and more gimmick defenses to throw Boston out of rhythm.
7. With three starters out, Stevens again had to go to some funky lineups again. At one point, he had Brad Wanamaker, Tremont Waters, Javonte Green, Semi Ojeleye and Vincent Poirier on the floor at the same time. That’s where things were at Friday night. The results of the little-used lineups were mixed. On this play, there are regular rotation players on the floor, but they don’t have a lot of time together. That leads to being disconnected defensively:
On the flip side, Poirier gave Boston some of his best minutes of the season. This play showed the type of rim-runner he was in Europe:
8. With the Hawks playing some gimmick defenses, the Celtics ball movement had to be good. Tatum, Walker and Marcus Smart all had six assists, and Boston had 23 assists on 37 baskets as a team. This set was a good one. Walker comes off the screen with lots of options. If the defenders don’t come up, he shoots the three-pointer. If the corner defender doesn’t tag Enes Kanter on the roll, Walker has him for a layup. The defenders come up and the corner man tags Kanter, which leaves Tatum open in the corner for the three:
On this transition play, four perimeter players touch the ball while Kanter rumbles down the lane and draws the defense. That leaves Langford wide-open:
This last one featured some great ball and player movement from Williams to Smart to Langford:
9. Speaking of Smart and Kanter (who was awesome with 16 points and 15 rebounds), they had their pick and roll chemistry working. When everyone is healthy, those two will be coming off the bench for Boston. That means the pick and roll should be the reserve unit’s offensive bread and butter. This is textbook from Smart to Kanter:
There are few backup bigs who can handle Kanter inside. Smart’s ability to make plays as a ballhandler is also very good. The goal for the bench is to keep the team even during their minutes. If Boston can milk the Smart/Kanter pick and roll, they should be able to do more than just keep things even.
10. Danny Ainge said Thursday and Friday that he didn’t make a deal at the trade deadline because there weren’t any deals he liked. That sounds simple, but it’s probably the easiest way to describe it. CelticsBlog has written from both sides. No matter where you come down on making trades, Ainge and Stevens have both said they like the roster as it is. They have both emphasized in recent weeks that priority one is the team getting healthy.
The players have also bought in. Whether it was Enes Kanter’s deadline-passing celebration, or the multiple Celtics who said they believe in who’s in the locker room, the guys on the floor didn’t want any trades either. That’s important, because Boston is clearly playing together and for each other. Sometimes a trade is necessary to break up a group that didn’t come together as hoped for (anyone want a do-over on last season?). But when your team is good, and they have a real love for each other, it’s not worth shaking things up unless the upgrade is great. Maybe Ainge should have consolidated some assets, but as the old saying goes “sometimes the best trades are ones you don’t make.”