When you’ve played together for as long as Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum have (or any of the Celtics' core, for that matter), there’s always going to be an unspoken understanding. You know each other's spots, where you like to receive a pass, and what cuts you’re likely to make when attacking the basket.
Little actions begin to get implemented, pick-and-rolls become more fluid, and defenses are forced into telepathy in an attempt to shut down the unspoken plans being played out in real time.
Throughout the first half of this season, Smart has connected with Tatum 76 times, totaling 179 points (accounting for 14.2% of Tatum’s total points this season), and Tatum has returned the favor on 17 occasions for a sum of 48 points per PBP Stats.
According to PBP Stats, Smart has assisted Tatum on 76 buckets this season, totaling 179 points.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) January 14, 2023
He's also assisted Brown 87 times for a total of 201 points.
Tatum has found Smart 17 times for 48 points, and Brown has found Smart 22 times for 60 points.
Smart and Tatum’s two-man game was on full display during the early quarters of the Celtics' January 12 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, with the pair hooking up on multiple actions to generate scoring opportunities for each other.
In the above action, Tatum and Smart run a simple pick-and-pop action between them, with Tatum operating as the screen and popper while Smart is the ball-handler. Smart does a fantastic job of dragging out his dribble (continuing to dribble around the perimeter after the screen) to draw both Ben Simmons and Seth Curry away from Tatum.
As all long-term teammates do, Tatum read Smart’s idea and quickly popped onto the perimeter, where he was shockingly left unguarded for a moment, allowing Smart to nail the pass. Bucket.
On this possession, we’ve got to credit Smart for an incredible dime, finding Tatum sprinting the court with a one-handed bounce pass that saw the ball spin, hit the court, and land directly in Tatum’s hands.
Smart knew Tatum was going to be sprinting the court and trusted his star teammate would have the body control to navigate two defenders en route to the rim, and thus, the completion of a fast-break attack that caught the Nets napping.
What’s interesting is that Tatum is being assisted on 58.4% of his buckets this season, so out of the 411 buckets he’s dropped, 240 have come courtesy of assists, which gives the Smart - Tatum connection almost a 20% share (19.2% to be exact) in Tatum’s assisted scoring over the first 43 games.
Here’s another example of Smart finding Tatum with an on-time pass to create an offensive advantage for the Celtics, this time courtesy of Smart forcing a defensive collapse after attacking a side pick-and-roll with Derrick White before Tatum relocates to the top of the perimeter for the uncontested look.
According to Instat’s tracking data, Tatum is shooting 27-of-106 from above the break this season, giving him just a 35% conversion rate; however, whenever you can get an All-NBA wing an open look, you take it — because more often than not, the shot is going to fall. Another interesting point to note is that only 27 of Smart’s 79 assists to Tatum have come from beyond the arc, and only 4 within what would be classified as the long mid-range area of the court. The other 48 have all come within 12 feet of the basket, with the lion's share (36) coming right around the rim.
When looking at the areas Smart is feeding Tatum the ball, the idea makes sense. After all, Tatum is finishing around the rim at a career-best 70% clip, utilizing his size, strength, and body control to contort into spaces that defenders struggle to contain (see eurosteps, up-and-unders, and crossovers to split defenses).
Quite simply, there has never been a better time to be a point guard playing alongside Tatum, especially a guard that is showing the world what a talented and willing passer they are following years of debate about whether they were capable of running a high-level offense on a contending Celtics team.
The beauty of this Celtics team is everybody came into the season with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove because an NBA Finals loss will do that to you. Nevertheless, we’re seeing the Smart-Tatum and Smart-Brown partnerships blossom before our very eyes in an offense that’s predicated on selfless ball movement and an onus on team success over individual accolades.
“Everybody has to sacrifice to be on a great team. We have individual guys that come off the bench that could start on the majority of other teams. We got guys that start that could average more on another team. But anybody will tell you how much fun and rewarding it was last year in the playoffs to keep advancing, keep winning, to make it to the Finals. And, no individual stat or accolade can measure up to being on a winning team that’s having fun. There’s nothing better than that,” Tatum after his double-double performance against the Brooklyn Nets.
Allow me to leave you with this final clip of an assist from Smart for Tatum, a play that highlights Smart’s unselfishness, ability to read and manipulate a defense, and make ridiculous passes look run-of-the-mill while playing against a team that just a few months ago, was competing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The two-man game between Smart and Tatum is blossoming, it has been for years. Yet, now, as the Celtics chase a return to the NBA Finals and their first ring since 2008, there couldn’t be a better time to see them take it to the next level.