Reasons for optimism are fading fast. The playoffs were once considered a formality, and now they’ll be a blessing. The play-in tournament is a banana skin just waiting to trip a falling giant. Right now, it’s fair to assume that giant will be the Boston Celtics - one of last year’s Eastern Conference finalists.
Excuses for this year’s poor performances are piled up high. Yet, nothing changes the fact that the Celtics find themselves in a “prove it or lose it” situation. Any hope of a resurgent roster, buoyed by health and fitness, all but faded when Jaylen Brown went down with a season-ending wrist ligament injury.
All season, we’ve relied upon the notion that the tandem of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to be the Celtics saviors in the postseason. Batman and Robin in interchangeable suits. Now, the pressure of expectations sits firmly atop Tatum’s broad shoulders alone. Fairly or unfairly, the 23-year-old wing is expected to decimate all before him, like a basketball version of Thanos.
It doesn’t have to be like this for Tatum. Another tandem has been forming in plain sight, being molded by darkness and forged in uncertainty. That duo is Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier.
Since Fournier recovered (to some extent) from the lingering effects of COVID, the pairing has rapidly developed into an intriguing pairing on the court.
Like Walker, Fournier was acquired from a team that’s struggled for relevancy in recent years. Similarly, Fournier is learning how to co-exist with the Celtics young stars, which means figuring out how to maximize possessions without the ball in his hands - just like Walker at times.
Over the last 7-10 days, there’s been a shift in how the two players operate together. A good pairing learns how to play together, and they co-exist positively. Great pairings learn how to play off each other; they understand how to manipulate defenses based on others’ movements and gravity.
Since sharing the floor, Walker and Fournier have shared the rock equally, both accounting for eight assists to each other. However, the effectiveness of the pairing goes deeper than mutual creation. It’s no surprise that lineup’s where both Walker and Fournier share the court have coincided with a diversified offense.
We’ve seen glimpses of pistol sets, corner lifts off stagger screens, and the re-introduction of the Spain pick-and-roll - this list of technical jargon is rather long and tedious, so simply put: when Walker and Fournier share the floor, Stevens goes deeper into his playbook.
Granted, playing a more intricate brand of offense on occasional possessions is enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing. Still, aesthetics doesn’t prove that the pairing contributes towards an improved offense - that’s where the numbers come in.
The Celtics have logged 323 non-garbage-time possessions, with Walker as the one and Fournier as the three. During those possessions, the Celtics are a +18.2 in points differential (points scored - points allowed), while also impressing with their shot conversion - those lineups are shooting an effective field goal percentage of 59.2%.
Of course, nothing is perfect. When the same lineups find themselves on the defensive end of the ball, there’s serious room for improvement. Opponents shoot an eFG of 50.2% and also dominate the glass, pulling down almost a quarter of their missed shots for second chance opportunities. The one silver lining is that lineups containing both Walker and Fournier seem to pressure the ball defensively, forcing a 16% turnover rate, which provides encouragement for the future at least.
Now we know the numbers hold up, and implementing a higher-level offense isn’t in vain. However, we still don’t understand why the combination of Walker and Fournier is working so well. Let’s explore that a little.
With the addition of Fournier, the Celtics now have multiple players who can bring the ball up at speed on offense before finding Tatum and allowing him to work as either a scorer or playmaker while the defense is still recovering from the quick offensive set entry. Furthermore, the additional ball-handling Fournier provides allows Walker more scope for operating as an off-ball playmaker, creating space with his movements.
Here’s a good example of allowing Walker to manipulate defenses with his off-ball movement. In their first offensive possession of the game, the Celtics run a Spain pick-and-roll variant, with Walker occupying his usual role as the back-screener who pops out to the three. Instead of the ball finding Walker, Tatum has curled into the strong side corner. Notice how both Walker and Fournier are situated on the weak side of the court, forcing the defense to stay home on those shooters.
By positioning two elite scorers, who can light you up on any scoring level, the Celtics are ensuring there’s cutting lanes, and that the defense can’t overload the strong side to contain Tatum. Patrick Williams ends up doing a solid job defending Tatum and the play results in a missed opportunity. However, the room Chicago afforded Tatum is a testament to impact of having both Walker and Fournier operating off ball.
Boston’s spacing has been poor this year, despite having numerous high-caliber scorers. The addition of Tristan Thompson and the further emergence of Robert Williams has ensured there’s always a big body rolling or patrolling the paint on offense. While Brown and Tatum are exceptional scorers from deep, both are better when finding their rhythm around the basket. Walker is similar, and he’s at his best when attacking mismatches and building his rhythm off success in the mid-range.
There were always at least two legitimate three-level scorers commanding the defense’s respect with Fournier on the floor - three now Brown is out for the season. Yet, even with Brown no longer being an option for the playoffs, Fournier is at least a similar replacement for the All-Star wing, rather than filling a gap with an untested rookie or sophomore.
The final piece to the Walker and Fournier puzzle is penetration, the elusive component to Boston’s faltering offensive approach this season. Fournier and Walker provide the Celtics with two high-level penetrators, both on and off ball. Stevens has also used the duo in sets where one is the cutter and the other quarterbacks, ensuring there’s always a scoring threat occupying defensive attention while the other resides in the open space generated by the initial cutting action.
When opposing teams are keyed in on Tatum, Walker and Fournier can punish their tunnel vision. Similarly, if Walker and Fournier’s combination play occupies the opposing team, Tatum is right there waiting to remind everyone not ever to forget his scoring ability.
The addition of Fournier has lightened the load of Boston’s other stars and unlocked previously closed avenues for success. The offense seems to tick better when Walker and Fournier are sharing the floor.
It may not be the star pairing fans were expecting to be cheering for at the beginning of the season, but right now, at this moment, it might be the pairing that surprises the world. The Celtics have a track record of finding a new identity in the playoffs once a core piece of their rotation goes down.
With Walker and Fournier playing so well off each other, that identity could be a high-pace offense with off-ball probing and Tatum operating in his best role: play finishing.