The Boston Celtics failed to tie up the series against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night. Despite Jayson Tatum’s 40-point night, the Nets offense proved to be too potent for the Celtics to keep pace; Brooklyn’s Big Three was too good for Boston’s defense to contain despite their best efforts.
However, for the second straight game running, two of the Celtics’ younger roster members had significant impact on the game. Romeo Langford was afforded the start due to Kemba Walker’s absence, and while he didn’t take over Walker’s ball-handling duties, his length and speed cause the Nets problems on the defensive end.
According to the NBA’s tracking data, Langford contested a total of 9 shots, with 5 of them being from three-point range. The second-year player also had some of the most challenging defensive assignments, splitting the majority of his floor time between James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving. Langford found the most success when lining up against Harden, forcing two turnovers and a brick in approximately 11 defensive possessions.
Defensive numbers are a lot less clear-cut than those on offense. When looking at a player’s defensive metrics, you need a broader lens, as defense is far more team-centric than an average NBA offense. However, when looking at Langford’s last two games, the team has a +9.6 net rating with the sophomore on the floor.
It’s fair to assume that most of Langford’s impact is coming from the defensive end and how his tenacity and length deter opponents from trying to shoot over him. Nonetheless, we can’t ignore the fact that we’re finally seeing signs of life on offense too, however fleeting they may be.
The above clip was Romeo’s third offensive possession of the contest: first was a dribble drive that resulted in an assist for a Marcus Smart three. The second was a baseline drive that resulted in a slightly off floater, and then this beauty. The Nets were so focused on limiting Evan Fournier’s shot and ensuring Tristan Thompson didn’t obtain the offensive board that Romeo just crept inside for the beautiful putback dunk to fire the crowd up.
Timely buckets such as the one above do two things: they ensure the defense doesn’t leave you unguarded again (creating additional spacing as a result), and they light a fire under your team.
What we also saw from the Indiana product was a willingness to drive the ball and draw fouls whenever possible. In 26 minutes of game time, with a usage rate of just 14.5%, Langford finished the game tied with Fournier for third-most attempts at the line (4) for the Celtics.
Despite Langford’s increased minutes and his willingness to battle on both ends of the floor, one thing’s becoming increasingly apparent: he needs to add some muscle to his frame. Both James Harden and Joe Harris use their physicality to command their space and take the 14th pick from the 2019 draft wherever they want. The same physicality issue has affected Langford’s offense this year, as he often dribbles around contact rather than through it, but strength is something that will come in time and with a healthy off-season.
Langford wasn’t the only young wing to impress in Boston’s loss. Rookie Aaron Nesmith made his presence felt, thanks in large part to his three-point shot making and tireless motor.
Nesmith’s first bucket didn’t come until late in the third quarter, with the Celtics already down big.
Offensive possessions like the one above display Nesmith’s primary offensive weapon: his ability to hit three-point bombs, and the gravity that comes with it. We see Nesmith run a ghost screen on Tatum (similar to a slip screen, but the screener pops rather than rolling) before selling a pass to Payton Pritchard in the corner and losing Joe Harris as a result.
Nesmith now has room to get his shot off, with Durant rotating over to contest. Durant’s rotation is a second too slow, as the rookie sharpshooter gets his jumper off and gets nothing but nylon in the process.
In the fourth quarter, another three long-range missiles find their target in a diversified fashion. We had a three from each corner and one where Nesmith lifted to the wing, creating a Brooklyn collapse on defense. In terms of volume and conversion rate, this late showing from Nesmith was arguably his greatest shooting night of the season, which bodes well heading into the summer.
Nesmith has followed Langford’s blueprint to consistent playing time this year - have a positive impact on defense based on hustle and intensity, and figure out the offensive side of the court once your minutes are consistent enough to do so. Brad Stevens will always find minutes for players who pressure the ball on defense and contest shots like they take every make personal.
Take this defensive play, for instance. Nesmith stays in front of Joe Harris for the entire drive, absorbing the contact from the ever-physical wing, before recovering to contest the attempt at the rim without fouling. The result of Nesmith’s defense is a missed attempt from Harris at point-blank range, allowing Tatum to garner the rebound.
This series has probably come a year too soon for both Nesmith and Langford. Despite their apparent potential, you need flawless consistency to have any chance of competing with the Brooklyn juggernaut: something which young players seldom display. You can encompass Payton Pritchard in that consistency bubble, too; he was another rookie who had an impact late as the Celtics chased the Nets’ substantial lead but has struggled to affect games up to this point.
There’s still at least one more game to be played in this series, and while the injury bug has again taken a chunk out of the Celtics rotation, we’re starting to see signs of life from Boston’s recent draft picks that should carry over to Game 5 and more importantly next season.
They might not be ready to turn a game or series on its head just yet, but the building blocks of impactful role players are starting to shine through their raw exteriors. Maybe, just maybe, the future still looks bright.