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Jayson Tatum keys a team effort: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Trail Blazers

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Boston won their fourth straight game and moved up to 5th in the East by beating Portland

Boston Celtics v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

1. In years past, it would be hard to look at a 116-115 finals score and call it a “gritty” win, but that’s what this was for Boston. Portland led for most of the first half, and a couple of times in the second half it looked like the Trail Blazers were poised to bury the Celtics.

As they have done so often in the last few weeks, Boston kept their composure, showed some fight and won the game.

Giving up 115 points isn’t any sort of marker of defensive greatness, but the Celtics made enough plays on that end when it mattered. After a massive comeback and turnaround win in Denver, it was good to see Boston follow it up with another big effort in Portland.

2. Postgame, Brad Stevens alluded to Jayson Tatum being at about the same point of the season games-wise as he was when he went nuclear last year. Right now, there isn’t much defenses can do to bother Tatum. He’s working inside-out, by attacking the rim and then going to his jumper. That’s got the defense off-balance as to how to defend him. Tatum is also generally making pretty quick decisions off the catch. He’s not holding it and surveying things for five or more seconds.

Here’s a good example of Tatum working quickly. He catches and immediately set up his move. Tatum doesn’t turn and face on Robert Covington for 10 dribbles or multiple pivots and jabs. He’s right into his move. Also, look at the floor balance. CJ McCollum can’t help of Marcus Smart in the strongside corner. Jusuf Nurkic can’t leave Tristan Thompson alone in the dunker spot. This is good spacing:

At the end of the game, everyone knows where this ball is going. Because Portland was chasing points late, they don’t have a good option on the floor to defend Tatum. This was mostly about Boston getting Tatum the ball in a spot where he could go to work. And go to work he did:

3. The Celtics piled up 30 assists on 42 baskets. They’re really playing together now with good ball and player movement. Brad Stevens said he thinks it’s mostly about the team being fairly healthy. Boston is also playing with great pace and getting into their stuff earlier in the clock.

You’ve got to be careful of passing up good shots to hunt great shots, because sometimes the great shots don’t come. That said, this is really unselfish basketball:

This play is really good because it shows the importance of spacing while your star works in pick-and-roll. Enes Kanter is high up the floor, because if he drops, Jayson Tatum is pulling up for three. Because of that, Carmelo Anthony has to drop into the lane to cut off Robert Williams on the roll. Tatum kicks to Grant Williams in the corner, which forces Anthony to make a hard closeout. Because Kanter was so high up the floor, and he’s fairly slow, he can’t recover quick enough. Grant makes the quick read and fires into Rob, who gets off the floor insanely fast for the easy dunk:

4. Marcus Smart had a couple of SMART! sequences in this game. The first one came late in the second quarter. Look where Smart is at the start of this clip. He dove on the floor for a steal at almost the opposite end of the court. Enes Kanter thinks he’s going to dime up CJ McCollum. Nope. Smart teleports back for the steal:

There isn’t another guard in the NBA who makes this next sequence of plays. First, Smart blocks Norman Powell at the rim in transition. Then, because Boston is scrambled, he has to pick up Jusuf Nurkic right at the basket. No worries. Smart simply goes all out to deny the entry pass for a steal:

Moments like these two are why Marcus Smart is “loved and trusted”.

5. It was another game where the Celtics kept their turnovers down. Boston only had 10 turnovers (nine player and one team) on the night. The Celtics offense can be lethal because they’ve got multiple players who can score at all levels. In order for that to work, they have to value the ball. That’s cleaned up in a big way over the last few games.

6. Brad Stevens said he thought Kemba Walker played with great energy, even when he missed some shots. Walker did look bouncy and energetic out there. He helped carry Boston early on. This is a great catch-and-shoot off a set play:

Walker was really pushing the pace when he was out there too. On this play, Walker gets downhill on the attack as soon as he crosses halfcourt. That opens up Robert Williams for the alley-oop:

The Celtics know how to attack Enes Kanter, because they know how they had to cover for him last season. Walker does a good job of freezing Kanter with the hesitation dribble here. That forces Norman Powell to rotate to the paint, which frees up Jayson Tatum for the corner three:

7. Defending Damian Lillard is a chore. Outside of Stephen Curry, no player is a bigger threat to pull up from anywhere inside the halfcourt line than Lillard is. Brad Stevens talked about how that stresses the defense, because you have to play so high up the floor.

The Celtics did their typical switching defense, but tried to keep Marcus Smart on Lillard as much as possible. Overall, Smart defended Lillard on over half of Portland’s possessions when both were on the floor. Smart held Lillard to just 1-of-5 shooting and forced two turnovers. Robert Williams got caught a couple of times, but Tristan Thompson and Grant Williams did a nice job of defending the Blazers high pick-and-roll actions. This made Lillard work for his points, as he still scored 28, but on 9-of-23 shooting with five turnovers.

8. Robert Williams stat-line looks good, but he had some struggles on defense. He wasn’t quite ready for Jusuf Nurkic’s craft or Enes Kanter’s brute force. That’s fine. These are all learning experiences for Robert Williams, and he’s getting them on the fly.

Tristan Thompson and Grant Williams were both better fits for this game on the defensive end. Thompson matched Kanter’s strength, while Grant Williams did a nice job denying Nurkic the ball when he could.

It’s also obvious Grant Williams learned a thing or two by going against Kanter in practice every day. Williams is ready for the spin move here and takes it away by staying on Kanter’s right hand. Grant also locks his position for the pivot back and draws the offensive foul:

9. It’s a little easy for Jaylen Brown’s good games to get lost right now. Jayson Tatum is doing his thing, Kemba Walker is always under a microscope and Marcus Smart is back to being a defensive terror. Everyone was watching to see how Evan Fournier would fit in, and how the big rotation would shake out without Daniel Theis. Brown just keeps quietly doing his thing.

It used to be that teams would hide smaller defenders on Brown. That’s not something you can get away with anymore, as Brown is comfortable taking them inside for easy buckets:

This shot has to be one Brown picked up from playing with Gordon Hayward. It’s the exact same move Hayward has used for years. For Brown, because of his athleticism, it feels almost unstoppable when he gets to this shot:

10. When Boston started this road trip, this space wrote: “It’s imperative that the Celtics go at least 1-2 on the trip. That’ll get them back to Boston at .500. If they can go 2-1, that’s even better. 3-0 would be an absolute dream.”

It’s time to dream.