The Boston Celtics’ Big Three of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker is no stranger to tight contests. They have a lengthy playoff run together under their belt that includes a do-or-die Game 7 victory in the second round of the 2020 playoffs.
While Brooklyn’s new trio works to develop late-game synergy, the Celtics are steps ahead. All that time in the trenches creates a level of familiarity they can lean on when similar circumstances arise.
“I’ve got great chemistry with Kemba on and off the court,” Tatum said after playing with his point guard for the first time this season. “I love playing with him and obviously he’s a great player.”
Tatum. Walker. Brown. In that order was the foundational hierarchy of last season’s top-five offense and a crunch-time attack that ranked top-10 in field goal and 3-point percentage. But things have changed in the interim with regards to that pecking order.
As Kemba sat through the first eleven games of the regular season with his knee troubles, Brown ascended to unprecedented heights by averaging 25.8 points a night on 53.8 percent shooting in those games.
Upon return, the current All-Star had no other choice but to take a backseat to the pending All-Star, though Walker did have some added responsibilities while Tatum remained out of the lineup after testing positive for COVID-19. When Tatum finally returned, Walker sat the second of a back-to-back against the Bulls.
The trio finally made their season debut in a 110-106 loss to San Antonio, during which the unfamiliarity of that new order might’ve come into play. And the Celtics are only now just realizing the adjustments that need to be made because of it.
During those final 12 minutes when Boston was outscored 28-22, here are the shot totals for those three uber-talented players and their accompanying usage rate and playing time.
- Tatum: 4-of-7 (36.8) 8:22
- Walker: 1-of-6 (36.8) 7:36
- Brown: 1-of-3 (16.7) 7:44
Nobody would’ve batted an eye at these numbers last season, not when Tatum and Walker were Boston’s two All-Stars and most frequent users of offensive possessions. But Brown has grown to the point where such little involvement is unacceptable considering how easy he’s made it for Brad Stevens to position him to thrive.
The percentage of Brown’s field goals that have been assisted on has dropped more than 20 percent since his rookie season. Improved handles and incredible three-level efficiency are how he came to lead the Celtics in scoring.
Just three points in the fourth quarter isn’t a product of play calls that failed to directly create the looks a younger Brown might’ve needed to put up points. On a team that already ranks top-10 in isolation frequency, there are times when Stevens simply needs to call for No. 7 and have everyone get out of the way.
Ultimately, having a third All-Star caliber player emerge is a good problem for Stevens to have. But some of his rotation choices against the Spurs signaled the difficulties that still lie in determining the proper permutations.
Boston’s offense featured Walker as the lone engine for roughly the first four minutes of the fourth quarter — unless you want to count Marcus Smart, who was 0-of-4 in the frame. During that stretch, the Celtics were outscored 7-2 before Kemba was subbed out for Tatum.
The complete reintegration of three 20-point scorers is a process, one Brown’s rapid rise to borderline superstardom has added a welcomed twist to. But if they could find a way to thrive off each other with the backbone of comradery only slowly propping them up as last season wore on, there’s no reason three unselfish stars can’t find a way to once again coalesce, even if some have to make more sacrifices than others.
It might just take time for Stevens to figure out how those changes affect the spots he’ll put them in to help the Celtics win games.
“The timing of it needs to flow a little bit better, but it’s the first one,” Brown said of his first game alongside Tatum and Walker this season. “Don’t want to overreact or anything.”