Games like Sunday night’s deconstruction of the Houston Rockets — one that, for the Boston Celtics, came at the perfect time against the perfect opponent, an ailing one forced to start more G-League players than an actual G-League team — are what we call “opportunities.” Typically, they’re designed for young players to seize an inordinate volume of garbage time minutes, or for those on the fringes of the Trade Block to have their front office-mandated showcase games. While not tailor-made for All-Stars to thrive, since they tend to do that nightly, such blowouts are equally lovely opportunities for them to dip into their bag of tricks and discover that they have a few extra lying deep within.
In other words: they can force a social media intern to mutter (and subsequently post) something like, “that was new.”
At some point Monday morning, or perhaps early Monday afternoon, that intern on the Boston Celtics social media team made the most of an opportunity. The kind of opportunity that they had to know would spark engagement on Twitter — retweets, likes, longing stares, ogling gazes at their screens. So, they cut a video from the Houston game, zoomed in on its subject, and applied a manipulative slo-mo effect. The subject was Jayson Tatum; the play in focus was his behind-the-back trickery that sent Victor Oladipo tumbling out of the frame.
It’s a very smooth play. I’m a bit more interested in how true the caption is.
Because it most certainly was new, a fascinating turn of skill from a player who continues to add more to his arsenal. But the idea that this play was “new” stretches beyond the fact that it was flashy; it hints at an evolution taking place on both the playmaking front and the maturity front.
Never mind the fact that Tatum can make this kind of play; it’s the fact that he knows when to make it, when it’s appropriate, and when it will work. He made plays that weren’t nearly as flashy as this one all night, and many of them were even more exhilarating due to their hinting at what might still remain uncovered. Those questioning whether or not the ceiling is in sight for this particular young buck can question no longer: this bag of tricks goes deep.
Tatum showed against the Rockets that he has more “in his bag,” as the kids say, than just big-time highlights and virtual crowd-igniting long twos. And though the same goes for Jaylen Brown, I’ll start by studying Tatum, whose 23 points, six rebounds, and six assists earned him Player of the Game honors from the NBC Boston broadcast – never mind that that’s roughly as difficult as it apparently is for Bill Belichick to sign 43 free agents in a two-hour period. He did so because he paced the Celtics in an ugly, hardly-in-doubt game. I’d like to think it’s because of his most efficient, self-aware work in ensuring that the Celtics never lost their lead.
Tatum is a frequent isolation player (4.8 possessions per game, eighth in the league among qualified players per NBA.com) if an inefficient one – he only scores 0.82 points per isolation possession and has a score frequency of 35 percent. That’s better than just 33.5 percent of the league; he hovers in the company of LeBron James (29.9th percentile), which is nice, but is closer to the isolation Death Eater himself, Russell Westbrook (16.8th percentile) than Kawhi Leonard (53.9) or even Giannis Antetokounmpo (75.4).
But he’s beginning to discover what isolations can do for him beyond pull-ups and ballhandling practice, much like some of the younger players in his stratosphere. Here, he quickly notices that he’s alone with Kevin Porter Jr. and that the Rockets guard is reacting too early to his hesitation. He blows past him and then finishes through contact.
You can’t tell me that last year’s Tatum would have taken that quick dribble-drive into a defender over a side-step jumper seven seconds and six dribbles later. He’s recognizing and — more importantly — taking what the defense gives him. And he’s doing it just as often, if not more often than he makes the smart play for himself against decent defense. Here, Victor Oladipo and Jae’Sean Tate are forced into a smart switch, and for a while, Tate is playing solid on-ball defense... until Tatum catches Tate rising up to defend what would normally be a pull-up from Tatum. Deuce’s dad decides to baby Jae’Sean with an absolutely disgusting dribble move to blow by and then pull-up. Sir, you dropped your binky.
I imagine you’re saying one of two things: 1) “But he missed!” or 2) “He could’ve kept driving.” Fine, so he missed. Watch the clip again and notice Oladipo’s hands: they drop down to his waste, hinting that he’s prepared to take a charge. I can’t see Tatum’s eyes, but I can only assume that he sees this, rises up, and takes a good shot for someone with his shooting ability and length. Donovan Mitchell probably would’ve kept driving and then got into a shouting match with referee #64 Justin Van Duyne when called for an offensive foul. Lucky for him, Tatum avoids both plights.
And then there’s this fast break play, on which he most certainly travels, but also most certainly takes the more efficient possible layup. In an alternate universe — had he not gone for out-muscling Oladipo in the restricted area, of course — Tatum would’ve optioned for a continuous running layup, one that Porter Jr. would’ve delightedly swatted into oblivion.
You can hear Tatum tell Oladipo, “Excuse me, sir, but I was here last. Get out of line.” Smartly, Oladipo obliges.
I can’t quite move on to Jaylen Brown before I talk about Tatum’s passing, which feels to me like the most transcendent jump he’s made this year. Per Second Spectrum tracking data, he leads the Celtics in the following: passes made per game (49.3), potential assists (8.8), and assist to pass percentage (13.1). He’s top-two in assists (4.5), assist points created (11.1), and adjusted assists (5.3). Tatum is also tricking the defense regularly with his eyes and ball-fakes; he’s a savant at pulling defenders toward post-dwelling big men while a wing stands wide open, begging for someone to make his life as a shooter a bit harder.
It’s a masterclass in maturity. Jaylen Brown might just be the class salutatorian.
Brown is as pure a shooter now that there is on the roster. Last year, he took his shot out of the oven too early; at Cal, he didn’t even have the recipe down. He’s Bobby Flay now, cooking with gas on an electric stove. No, that’s not possible. And yet, he makes it happen.
Last year, he shot 37.9 percent on pull-ups, per Second Spectrum. This season, he’s bumped those numbers up to 43.7 percent. He’s been shooting 48.8 percent from 15-19 feet, up from 45.2 percent last season. But forget that piece of information: note that his attempts have doubled. He’s up to 2.3 per game from 1.1 per game last season from that distance, and he’s been more efficient.
This article is going to make Jae’Sean Tate sound (and look) like a machine-washed Raggedy Ann Doll. For that, I am sorry, Jae’Sean, but I’m not sure Jaylen Brown is. Tate defends well, but Brown’s nasty crossover gives him just enough space to adjust the height of his release and drain a fadeaway two in the city of Houston’s face. He does the same in the below clip; as CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith wrote following Sunday’s game, “This shot is a really tough one. David Nwaba is a very good defender. Brown uses his size and athleticism to knock down a tough fall away.”
Brown’s butt kisses the floor as the ball kisses the bottom of the nylon. David Nwaba should kiss the ring.
If there’s one thing that Brown has always had over Tatum, it’s his patience. Tatum is a better playmaker when he elects to go off the dribble instantly, whereas Brown does well for himself when he lingers on the back of his screener, surveying his options. Below, he splits the defensive coverage, hangs on the elbow for a split second as two defenders scramble to reclaim their position, and darts to the rim for a scoop layup (he shoots 62 percent from less than five feet).
Lesser offensive playmakers — or those less mature — would vie for the fading jumper directly following the handoff. Brown patiently searches for the best possible shot. He dribbles a total of five times between the top of the key and the rim, each dribble serving as a vehicle to change direction, to move somewhere. Nothing is meaningless, and nothing comes without the next play in mind. When he rarely forces his shot, it’s linkable to the youth that does still exist — but he’s hardly impulsive anymore, and his restraint often translates to points instead of blank heat checks.
You’ve never had to worry about his defense, but just for the sake of checking every box, I’d call him the personification of scrappy, though I could do the same with my neighbor’s chihuahua. Instead, I’ll note that as a transition/on-ball defender, he’s become as bothersome as a Patrick Beverley and as much of a hindrance as Kawhi Leonard or Paul George.
Here, Oladipo anticipates that Brown has yet to get off the ground having tumbled on the last Celtics possession, so he pump fakes. Instead of sailing past him, Brown snaps his feet into a proper stance and stays home. Oladipo then attempts to attack a defender he assumes would be off-balance and is suddenly dribbling without the basketball. Driving into Jaylen Brown now that his hands are a bit more active is like dribbling into one of those long, dark capes that cloak your car in a car wash.
My point isn’t to say that Boston’s Jay duo was born anew in a 134-107 drubbing of a depleted Rockets team on a 16-game losing streak, but that their opportunity to continue their growth intermittently presented itself, and that they took it to the fullest extent. They tried different things, accessing the kind of basketball awareness you tend to watch veterans sustain after six or seven years of establishing. This might look to you like yet another “Tatum and Brown are GOOD” article, a thought the likes of which you can find in Twitter comments or on signs in The Garden when fans can safely return. But I’m not saying that Tatum and Brown are just good. I’m saying that, through their less eccentric moments, they’re growing into superstars. The ability to dunk on LeBron James in a playoff series is merely supplemental.
Fans and analysts alike often do most of their most aggressive pontificating about a player’s ceiling before they actually have any idea of what they have yet to discover as playmakers. We forget that players in the midst of incomplete maturation processes like Tatum and Brown are 23 and 24 years old, respectively. Think about it: we’re still discussing the limits and extents of Joel Embiid’s long-range game; he’s 27. We have learned more about what James Harden has to offer as a point guard at age 31 than we did when he won MVP playing score-only guard in 2018 (at age 28).
It’s as simple as checking ourselves before we proclaim that “Player X can’t carry a team to a title because his jumper only extends to 17 feet, not 22.” The best players make more and more additions to their long list of capabilities on a nightly basis. Perhaps it’s time that we, as viewers, remain as patient with them as the best are with their games.