1. This version of the Takeaways is going to intersperse thoughts from Boston’s big win at Milwaukee with fallout from the trade deadline. The best place to start with that is the Celtics new starting center: Robert Williams.
Following Daniel Theis being moved in a tax-avoidance trade, Williams is set to take over in the middle for Boston. In the fourth start of his career, Williams looked like he’s ready to hold down the pivot for a while. Brad Stevens said pregame that “Rob can fill the stat sheet” and boy did he. Williams finished with seven points, nine rebounds, six assists, five blocks and two steals in 27 minutes.
Beyond the numbers, Williams looked as good as he has all season. One of the things Boston will miss most is Theis setting screens for the ballhandlers. Williams set a solid one here to free up Jayson Tatum:
Williams is probably Boston’s best passing big man since Al Horford. Stevens can run offense through him at the top of the key. Here’s an example with Williams finding Kemba Walker on a backdoor cut:
While Theis was a better rim protector than he usually got credit for, most of his work was done as a help-defender. Williams can switch and hold his own at the point of attack, as he did here against Jrue Holiday:
And there was this sequence. As good as Theis was for Boston, he was never everywhere all at once like Williams was on this play:
2. Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker set a tone for the Celtics from the start of the game. Tatum was aggressive about getting inside for baskets, then worked out to his jumper as the game went along. Walker was on the attack from the tip. It’s probably too much to say those two were motivated by the Celtics trade deadline moves, but it’s likely at least partially true.
Danny Ainge said he wanted to give the players and coaches hope. He sensed the team was getting discouraged. By adding Evan Fournier, Ainge made it clear he’s not giving up on this season. If that motivates the team’s best players to performances like this, that’s all for the better.
3. Here’s an example of Tatum being aggressive early. Holiday is a very good defender and Tatum blew by him for a dunk like it was nothing:
The best word to describe this performance by Tatum (34 points in 33 minutes on 13-of-18 shooting) is “smooth”. He looked like All-Star Tatum for the first time in a while. It was at this point last season, just after the All-Star break when Tatum took the leap. If he can get to that level again, things will look a better for the Celtics down the stretch.
4. The word of the day for Boston as a whole was “balance”. Tatum had 34 points, Marcus Smart scored 23, Walker had 21 and Jaylen Brown scored 18. Everyone off the bench contributed in mostly positive ways as well.
Now, it helps to rain down 22 three-pointers. But the ball and player movement was very good to open up those shots. And, it came against of the best teams in the conference who had been on an eight-game winning streak.
5. Evan Fournier will add scoring and playmaking for the Celtics. On offense, he’ll have the Gordon Hayward-lite sort of role. He’ll spot up in the corner some, but when the ball comes his way, Fournier will have the ability to shoot or make a play off the bounce. All too often this year, that drive-and-kick pass has resulted in the ball sticking a little too long, a missed shot or a turnover. Fournier will open things up considerably.
Just as importantly, his presence will allow everyone to slot in to spots on the roster that make a big more sense. Smart can play as the secondary playmaker, off-ball shooter, defense-first player that he’s meant to be. Payton Pritchard will become more of the primary backup to Kemba Walker. Aaron Nesmith, and maybe Romeo Langford, can play as attacking wings off the bench.
Sometimes a trade isn’t about what you add, but rebalancing the roster. The Fournier addition can have that impact for Boston.
6. Brad Stevens is a good coach. He puts his players in the best position to succeed at almost every opportunity. But, like a lot of coaches, he has his crutches. Stevens’ “binkies” for Boston this year were Daniel Theis, Jeff Teague and Javonte Green. (Semi Ojeleye remains, but he’s had value without really blocking playing time for anyone else.) Stevens relied on all the three departed Celtics a good amount, even when giving those minutes to a younger option might be better long-term.
Remember in the movie version of Moneyball when Billy Beane trades away some good players and A’s manager Art Howe is forced to play the guys Beane added in the offseason? Danny Ainge may have done that to Brad Stevens.
Even if Tristan Thompson reclaims a starting role, Stevens has to play Robert Williams. Even if Boston adds Andre Drummond, there are still minutes available for Robert Williams.
When Kemba Walker is out, or needs a rest, Stevens can’t lean on Jeff Teague anymore. He has to play Payton Pritchard. It’s fair to note Pritchard was already playing, but he’s got the backup role to himself now.
When the team needs energy, Aaron Nesmith or Romeo Langford will have to be those guys vs Green.
Stevens doesn’t have his crutches to lean on anymore. When he looks down the bench, he’s going to have to use the younger players. That will get bumpy at times, but that’s a win for the future of the Celtics.
7. Who knows what Moritz Wanger will be for the Celtics? He’s a nice flyer if nothing else. He might be able to develop into a Jonas Jerebko-type. Decent outside shot, ok finisher inside and a very big irritant on defense.
Wagner can also help replace some of the stretch-five element that was lost in the Theis trade. This is a nice read of the double by Tatum. Then it’s pass, pass, Wagner knocks down his first bucket for Boston:
8. The Celtics are in Oklahoma City to wrap up their road trip Saturday night. It’s unknown if Fournier will play, but Stevens said “We’ll throw him right in there as soon as he’s available”. Walker is out on the back-to-back, so it’s not crazy to think Fournier could start if he plays tonight.
No matter what, this is a winnable game for Boston. The Thunder play really hard, but they’re going to be outmanned without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Celtics could return home with a couple of wins under their belts.
Win or lose Saturday night, this next stretch may make or break Boston’s season. They’ve got seven straight home games over the next two weeks. There’s only one back-to-back in that period as well. If the Celtics were ever going to get it going and make a real push towards homecourt advantage, the time is now.