You discover an enormous amount about yourself when your back is against the wall and the pressure of the moment weighs on you like a lead balloon. In Game 3 of their series against the Brooklyn Nets, the Boston Celtics dug deep to rediscover their true identity. Winning in typical Celtics fashion, Boston fought for every loose ball, rebound, and contested every shot. While on offense, the Celtics played one of their most cerebral games of the season.
Of course, Jayson Tatum will deservedly take the headlines following another superstar performance, and Marcus Smart’s contributions will be a close second. But, we should take a moment to appreciate the sophomores and the role they played in limiting Brooklyn’s offense.
Both Romeo Langford and Grant Williams saw big minutes during significant stretches for the Celtics. However minimal, both second-year players made an impact offensively, but it was their defense which significantly contributed towards Boston clawing their way back into this series.
In Romeo Langford, the Celtics have a proven commodity on the defensive end of the floor; his 6’6” frame coupled with his 6’10” wingspan and impressive lateral quickness ensure opponents consistently struggle to break him down off the dribble or catch. It makes sense then that when Joe Harris was beginning to heat up during the first quarter, Langford’s early assignment was limiting the NBA’s most efficient scorer this season while also embracing the team’s switching scheme as the Nets tried to counter.
Take this early play, for example. Langford navigates Brooklyn’s stagger screens with ease while keeping pace with the cutting Joe Harris in a lock and trail defensive coverage. When Kyrie Irving feeds Harris the ball, both Robert Williams and Marcus Smart do a great job of hedging to allow Langford time to reintegrate into the possession. Harris’ advantage has been nullified, forcing him to give up the ball and pass it back to Irving. Langford has recovered into the play and contests Irving’s shot to contribute towards a miss.
If Langford fails to navigate those screens, then the possession becomes a three-on-two power play, where Smart and Williams are forced to make tough decisions on their defensive coverages. Avoiding screens may seem rudimentary, but the implications of failing to do so can quickly become problematic.
We often hear coaches talk about defenses moving on a string, that when one player moves, the remaining four guys adjust to keep their defensive shape and coverages. Watch how Williams and Smart ensure they recover to their man instantly; they want no part in any Irving wizardry from a high-low entry pass to Nicolas Claxton.
Here’s another excellent example of Langford navigating a screen, this time a pin-down from Kevin Durant to free Harris from the corner before switching onto Irving to contest his three-point shot. A key point to notice is that when Langford was guarding either Irving or James Harden, he trusted his length and speed to close distance, which allowed him to sag slightly and remove any advantage his counterparts had off the dribble.
More encouragingly, Langford displayed what looked like an improved shooting motion from deep, dispelling the notion that his jumper is mechanically broken, while also contributing towards the Celtics spacing.
While there’s still a slight hitch at the point of release, and the gather is a little low for my liking, the shooting motion is relatively fluid. Sure, Langford’s only converted on 27.8% of his three-point attempts this season, but when he’s averaging just one per game and has only amassed 18 appearances this season, the sample size is limited. The fact is, we don’t know what level of shooter Langford is yet, but hitting your open shots from the corners is the quickest way to ensure you’re trusted enough to start finding out.
“We had a lot of guys step up around Jayson being special,” Brad Stevens noted following the Celtics victory.
Another one of those “guys” was Grant Williams, the tweener who’s often failed to impress this season. Yet, with Robert Williams missing most of the game due to an ankle sprain, the sophomore wing/small ball big’s number was called - and he didn’t disappoint.
By now, we’re all well aware of Williams’ limitations when guarding the perimeter, but when he’s operating at the five, we get to see the best of him and his IQ. Take the above play as an example. Williams picks up Kyrie Irving, who is strolling into the lane, before identifying Harden has beaten Walker off the dribble and rotating over to provide additional rim protection. The result is a blocked shot and a momentum boost for the Celtics.
On offense, Williams continued to be himself, setting solid screens and using his strength to create openings for shooters. In this above sideline out of bounds (SLOB) play, Williams set’s a pin-down for Evan Fournier who’s cutting off an elbow split action with Langford.
With the amount of scoring talent on the Celtics roster, having selfless players such as Williams to create shooting space is invaluable, especially when he blocks out two defenders like in the clip above.
“For our guys to come in and do exactly what those guys did to us in Game 2 and that’s contributing on both ends of the floor is exactly what we need and we got to continue that. It was big. Everybody contributed tonight,” Jayson Tatum explained when asked about his teammates’ performances.
While both Langford and Williams provided encouraging individual performances, it was the team’s full rotation of players that made the victory over Brooklyn possible. Yet, without Langford containing multiple pieces of the Nets offense (except Kevin Durant, but he’s well, Kevin Durant) and his work on the boards (he had six rebounds), the Celtics could have found themselves in a different situation down the stretch.
Couple Langford’s performance with Williams’ display of strength and versatility, and the Celtics found two contributors in their moment of need. Thankfully, those contributions weren’t limited to the two sophomores, as the whole roster pulled together to ensure they protected home court.
“Fortunately, in the game of basketball and any athletics, you got a team that’s desperate and fighting, so you can never count them out.” Marcus Smart explained.
Now, the team will need to reset and prepare for battle again on Sunday, as they line up against the Nets in front of 17,000 Bostonians, something which drew a wry smile from Tatum when asked about it during his on-court interview at the final whistle.
“I’ve missed those guys, and I’m sure they’ve missed us, and being able to see us play live. So, I’m looking forward to it,” Tatum told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols.
Well, if the likes of Langford, Williams, Payton Pritchard, or Aaron Nesmith think they’ve experienced all the NBA has to offer, Sunday will be a huge culture shock as the Celtics true sixth man returns to the rotation.