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Improvements all around: 10 Takeaways from Celtics/Hawks

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After a series of adjustments, the Celtics split the two-game series with the Hawks.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
  1. Kemba Walker’s knee struggles are slowly seeping into the back of our minds, becoming a distant memory. Naturally, it’s still tough for the Celtics on back-to-backs when their third star sits out, but when the results mean a performance like the one against the Atlanta Hawks, you can live with it.

Walker put together an impressive game, pushing the pace early, picking his spots, and offering smart off-ball movement to free up space for his teammates. Most importantly, though, is that Walker is figuring out how to score around the rim again, using his burst of speed to beat bigger defenders off the dribble before showing some crafty finishing moves around the rim.

The New York native went 10-for-16 in the contest but an even more impressive 5-for-6 in the paint. It wasn’t vintage Kemba, but we’re getting closer by the day.

2. Boston’s high-low passing game repeatedly hurt the Hawks throughout the night, as the Celtics made use of their versatility. The Hawks were operating in a similar defensive scheme to Wednesday night, focusing on limiting dribble drives while attempting to force contested three-pointers. As a result, the Hawks allowed a bunch of space in the middle for over-the-top passes or post-entry passes off the bounce, and the Celtics took full advantage.

If we’re honest, this play is a poor example of how the Celtics attacked the Hawks defense with high-low passing, but it’s simply too pretty to leave out. In fairness, Walker’s initial entry pass for the lob is part of the high-low variety and is perfectly weighted for Tatum. Then, Tatum passes up the alley-oop for a better shot in the form of a Robert Williams dunk. What we get is a high-low fast-break finished by a double alley-oop - exquisite ball movement, captivating offensive execution.

Who said the art of post-entry passing is dead? Tatum and Brown must have been listening to Justin Timberlake pre-game because they’re bringing sexy back with this play. Tatum receives the ball from Walker, the previously dawdling Brown ducks into a post-up position. With no Hawk guarding middle, Tatum hits an easy bounce pass to get Brown into a high-percentage offensive position - the shot didn’t fall. Still, it’s better than what we’ve seen recently, so there’s that.

Here’s that versatility that gave the Hawks fits. Remember when the two-big lineup wasn’t working when it looked like an abject disaster? Not this time. Tristan Thompson short-rolls off the screen for Walker (more on short-rolls later) and then hits Daniel Theis with a high-low lob pass for an easy deuce. When things are clicking for this offense, they’re tough to predict.

3. Tristan Thompson has been a basketball rendition of the smart kid in class, who sneaks by on the bare minimum until finals week. However, something was different in this game; there was a fire in his play and eagerness to win his matchup with Clint Capela. In 27:24 minutes of the game, the 2016 NBA champion put in his best performance in a Celtics uniform.

Thus far, one of the biggest knocks on Thompson has been his inability to convert offensive boards into second-chance opportunities. Above, you can see Thompson battling with Capela for the offensive rebound before displaying a soft touch seldom season this year, resulting in a comfortable bucket following Tatum’s miss.

The Celtics big-man finished the contest with 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting, five rebounds, three assists, and a block - not a bad night’s work.

4. Interestingly, on Wednesday night, the Celtics rarely forced Trae Young into tough spots defensively. That all changed in this one, as the Celtics opened the game hunting for Atlanta’s offensive talisman. While Young is an offensive force of nature, his defensive skillset is akin to a 10th grader.

In the opening half of the game, the Celtics hunted Young like a lion does a gazelle, with Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker benefiting from the hunt’s spoils.

Note to self: Trae Young is quite susceptible to making the wrong decision when guarding the pick-and-roll.

And here’s another example of how Walker used the screen to create space from Young for a great look from deep.

5. Modernized NBA offenses love the short roll; it allows for secondary playmaking, encourages off-ball movement, and generally operates in an area of the floor where there’s considerable space. The Celtics haven’t stumbled on to a new wrinkle in their offense here - they have run short-roll sets for years, but against the Hawks, they upped their usage of this play-type and reaped the rewards as a result.

Here’s a Theis short roll, which ends up assisting Thompson on the low block.

Another short roll from Theis, this time it ends in a smooth mid-range jumper. And don’t forget the clip from Thompson above where he had his “Look, I can short roll, too” moment.

6. For years, the Celtics have been devoid of talent at the five, and now, they’re flush with it. Robert Williams continued his impressive stretch of games, injecting energy and athleticism to the rotation from the bench.

The third-year big went 6-for-8 from the floor, with all of his shots coming from within the paint. Williams also added seven rebounds, two steals, and four blocks to his box score as he continues in his pursuit for starting-level minutes.

Here’s the Williams steal on Young that ended in the fast break double alley-oop from earlier.

A popular term for athletic rim runners is vertical spacing, where a player’s presence on the roll forces the defensive to adjust to deter the lob pass. Here’s a great example of Williams operating as a vertical spacer from the pick-and-roll as he finishes the lob play by banking it in off the glass.

7. Ball movement has been a focus of criticism for the Celtics in recent weeks, with much being made of their isolation heavy, spread pick-and-roll offense. Sure, there have been games where the ball has moved, and players have caused havoc with their cutting, but too often, the Celtics have reverted to isolation sets to close the game out.

Not last night, though, as the Celtics were spraying the ball around the floor with speed and determination, continually looking for the next best shot. The team ended with 26 assists, and in truth, it could have and should have, been more - with only their fourth quarter cold spell limiting the group from breaking the 30 assist mark.

We’ve learned not to read into the ball movement too much, as each time we do, the team struggle to replicate that offense in the next game. However, the gap between each night of stellar offense is shortening, providing us all with a sense of optimism that the team is figuring their offense out.

8. There’s something eerily similar about Nesmith’s start to the season and how Romeo Langford cracked the rotation last year. Both came into the league billed as offensive firecrackers off the bench, and neither started the season NBA-ready (for very different reasons).

Yet, when we began to see them play regular minutes, it was on the defensive end that they made their mark, earning plaudits for their hustle and aggression.

As we know, Brad Stevens will find time for players who hustle and keep with their defensive assignments. The offense will come sooner or later, as the game begins to slow down for the rookie.

9. The Celtics have been more than happy to hurt teams in the mid-range to begin the season, especially since Brown has become borderline automatic from that area.

However, in this matchup, the Celtics opted for a more traditional form of offense, utilizing the three-point line and restricted area, only venturing middle for secondary creation.

Celtics Shot Chart vs Hawks
Celtics Shot Chart vs Hawks
stats.nba.com

As you can see, Boston flirted with the mid-range. Instead, they utilized their unique blend of three-level scorers, playmaking bigs, and dribble-drive maestros to decimate the Hawks defense.

10. Following the loss against Atlanta earlier this week, Brad Stevens noted in his postgame press conference that they would treat the second game like a playoff game - noting that there would be some adjustments.

“We’ll get back together on Friday morning, and go over a gameplan for Friday night. Which will obviously be a little different, because we want to change things. You want to treat this like an opportunity to look at team like in a second game of a playoff series.”

Most of those adjustments were clear, and some of them have been noted here. But considering the discourse surrounding Brad Stevens coming into this game, it’s only fair to give him credit for implementing the adjustments that enable the team to go out and win against a plucky Hawks team looking to sweep the two-game mini series.