Something clicked once the second quarter began Monday night against the Tampa Raptors. While Jayson Tatum exploded for 26 first-half points to dig Boston out of an early hole, the rest of the group started hitting shots and playing impassioned defense next to him.
Coming out of halftime, Brad Stevens knew what he had to do to sustain the run and enable Tatum and Jayson Brown to thrive in space as much as possible: change the lineups around them. To start the second half, Stevens benched Daniel Theis and brought Semi Ojeleye into the lineup.
By the time Theis came in to relieve center Tristan Thompson seven minutes later, the lead had ballooned to 20. Tatum tacked 12 more points on in that span, and the Celtics offense spouted off 52 points in the 19 minutes since the end of the first quarter.
The three-man rotation of Theis, Tristan Thompson, and Robert Williams played only 54 minutes. The only times there were two of them on the floor together: the first six of the game, when Boston was down in a 23-10 hole. The difference in their starts to both halves was night and day.
Sure, a supernova effort from Boston behind the 3-point line was the catalyst to this win. But the change by Stevens to fully abandon the twin towers lineup is the most important takeaway from this game moving forward. On a night when three of Boston’s best point guards were out of the lineup, they found out the answer was not to go big in their stead but to go “Semi” small.
The hot shooting of Semi Ojeleye carried over from the two-game stand in Detroit. On Sunday, Semi drilled three treys in timely fourth-quarter fashion to help propel the Celtics to victory. His presence in Boston’s closing lineup of a close game came as a surprise to many. He turned around a night later and drilled three more, going 3-for-5 from deep and finishing with 12 points and 8 rebounds. His 30 minutes were by far a season-high.
Ojeleye’s dependable shooting has opened the door for this ascent, and for Stevens to finally trust that Semi is the solid fifth cog in the wheel of their starting group. Defense has rarely been the issue for the SMU product. He’s strong-bodied and locks up bigger wings one-on-one. The lack of dependability came around his jump shot and whether it could be trusted.
The Raptors got punished for leaving him alone in the corners and over-helping on Tatum or Brown drives. There was so much more space to operate in the room when compared to the Thompson-Theis frontcourt lineups to open the season.
Toronto got caught in a miscue on what looked like confusion as to whether they were in man or zone. Alex Len and Pascal Siakam got their wires crossed, middle penetration occurred and Ojeleye got a look in rhythm, which was enough to build his confidence for the rest of the evening:
When standing in the corners, you don’t have to be Ray Allen to command attention. As the game has progressed over the last fifteen years, the corner three has become one of the most important shots. It’s a convenient floor-spacing trick that puts baseline help defenders in a lose-lose situation. Good shooters stationed in the corners not only provides value by being the closest spot on the 3-point arc for a quality attempt, but increases the field goal percentage of drivers at the rim. There’s too much ground to cover for them to both uphold their responsibility on drives and cover the corner shooter.
So when Ojeleye, who shot 46.2% on corner threes a year ago, is standing there instead of Theis (who was 38.5%), the defense is put in a little more of a bind. Ojeleye is getting a lot of shots in this location this year because, more times than not, defenses sell out to help at the rim and prevent Tatum and Brown from getting going.
The Raptors looked sluggish in the third quarter and didn’t take that conventional route. On three consecutive possessions, one of Brown or Tatum barreled their way to the rim for clean layups (or foul-drawing opportunities) without interference from corner defenders:
Ask yourself this question: would that be the case if Theis were standing in Semi’s spot?
It’s not that Theis can’t shoot; he’s absolutely an adequate shooter for a big man. But we saw in the postseason how hesitant he can be to pull the trigger on some open looks, and how that stagnates the Celtics offense. They don’t have enough firepower to turn down good looks this year. They’re better off putting someone in the corner who has the confidence to take the shot and the consistency to bury it.
Most importantly from Monday, Tatum drew a season-high thirteen free throw attempts, a part of his game missing for the C’s. As a collective unit, Boston entered Monday night at the very bottom in charity stripe opportunities. To me, the explosion in contact-drawing is heavily influenced by the removal of two centers from the lineup.
When Tatum drives from his isolations and quick attacks, defenses naturally gravitate towards him as the primary threat. If Tatum’s teammates are on the 3-point line and spaced well around him, the help defenders that come flying in are bound to be a half-second late. Any contact that occurs as they meet Tatum at the spot is an automatic defensive foul. But if the spacing isn’t around the 3-point line and those helpers are one step closer, they can beat Tatum to the spot and wall up, leading to a no-call from the officials.
Early in the year, those possessions have looked like this:
Tatum has started the year 15-35 (42.9%) at the rim, according to Synergy Sports Tech. That’s a really, really bad number, especially for a 6’9” scorer. Again, it’s hard to call that a coincidence when 3-point shooting isn’t next to him.
Semi isn’t the reason Boston won this game. Everyone was fantastic in their role. Tatum went off. Payton Pritchard had a career night. Timelord looked fantastically active, and even Grant Williams came off the bench to nail some shots. The defense looked stout and the Raptors didn’t play like they’re capable. It was the perfect storm.
But the presence of Ojeleye and a more space-oriented lineup clearly brings out the best in everybody. Monday felt like an identity-finding evening down in Tampa. Let’s hope the Celtics move forward with this version of themselves.