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Queen and how the Jays keep defenses under pressure

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s pressure on the rim bears similar advantages, but how they get there is so, so different.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Recently, I was reminded of an interaction with two of my middle school travel team teammates that had, until that moment, been lost to the passage of time and alcohol consumption in my college years. This might not be particularly shocking, but travel team wasn’t super memorable for me. According to my coach, I was a “valuable role player,” and according to my mom, I was the “handsomest little boy on the team.” The interaction occurred while me, my mom, and the two teammates (who we will call C and D) were driving through the woods of western Massachusetts in my mom’s green 1995 Chevy Astro van. Look at this beauty.

I was in the front seat while they sat in the middle bucket seats, and the three of us were wearing our light blue uniforms despite literally being from a town called Orange. C, D, and I always got along well, but we had considerably different interests. They were “cool.” I was short, chubby, and had a bowl cut. My interests included rushing home after practice to play Magic the Gathering and Diablo 2; theirs included speaking to girls. We just lived different lives.

On this particular trip to some obscure western Mass town, probably like Ware or something, D turned to C and asked him, “what song he’s got stuck in his head.” I don’t remember the answer, but I remember the feeling that question gave me. Likely because of nerves, I would always get a song stuck in my head to the point that it was almost invasive. Every game, without fail, an ear worm would burrow itself into my psyche.

Apparently, this phenomenon also happened to C, and in this particular instance, he said that we were undefeated when he had that specific song stuck in his head. This wasn’t a bizarre oddity unique to my personality. It happened to other people, and some of them are actually good at basketball. It was a confidence-building conversation for a young Wayne Spooney.

Queen concert At Wembley Stadium

Once that memory struck me, I started wondering if any of the Celtics players are afflicted with this particularly mild symptom. And if they are, what’s the song that gets stuck in their head? Well, for the Jays, I think I have a pretty easy answer. With the way Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are attacking the rim this year, I like to believe that the classic Queen (and David Bowie) song “Under Pressure” is perpetually glued to their cerebral cortex as they shake several defenders on their way to completing an improbable and-1 at the rim.

The Jays, quite simply, have been absolute menaces attacking the basket this year. Their rim pressure stats match the eye test. Here’s a chart I worked very hard on, so please do not make fun of it. Thank you in advance.

Chart of the Jays’ rim pressure stats

For some context on these stats, Jaylen and Jayson are 14th and 15th respectively in the league in points in the paint per game, and top-40 in drives per game (as is Malcolm Brogdon). Their FG% in the restricted area is big man level elite. They are both more efficient around the rim than Domantas Sabonis, Clint Capela, and Zion Williamson.

What makes the similarities in their numbers so great is that they generate their rim looks so much differently. I’ll first take a look at Jaylen Brown’s aggressive, downhill style, then I’ll breakdown Jayson Tatum’s deliberate, crafty rim attacks. But first, cue the music.

“Pressure pushin’ down on me. Pressin’ down on you, no man ask for.”

It’s a joy to watch Jaylen Brown attack the rim when I’m sitting on the couch. It’s probably terrifying to watch him attacking the rim from his primary defender’s point of view though. He has a relentlessness to his attacking style that seemingly wears out defenses and punishes shot blockers. If I had to describe Jaylen’s rim attacks in three words, they would be: fast, direct, jackhammer, merciless, insatiable.

That play is an example of one of the best ways Jaylen creates rim pressure: attacking in semi-transition. The beauty of semi-transition, where the defense is mostly back, but not matched up properly, is that there are boundless opportunities to do so in games. True transition is generally quite rare, usually it only occurs after a turnover or a long rebound. Alas, not semi-transition. If you’re fast enough (which Jaylen is) and read the defense well enough (which Jaylen does) you can pluck efficient offense out of thin air. Case in point:

Two of the beautiful things about semi-transition are its hair and eyes. Wait, wrong piece, that’s for my Harry Potter fanfic. Semi-transition creates a mismatch for the ballhandler, beautiful thing #1, but it also creates mismatches for others on the court, beautiful thing #2. There we go. Back on track.

Creating a mismatch for the ballhandler obviously creates an advantage for Jaylen, like it does in the clip above. But the way in which it provides that advantage isn’t always obvious. Watch Luke Kornet who is covered by Demar DeRozan on that play. Because the Bulls haven’t had the opportunity to matchup correctly, Luke puts DeRozan into the stands; they both sit down courtside, and I believe share a popcorn and diet soda.

Meanwhile, Jaylen can attack the rim without the fear of a rim protector. The lack of rim protection is solely because he decided to attack before the Bulls defense could get organized, despite not having a true numbers advantage.

By attacking quick and early, Jaylen forces defenders to make decisions, and forcing defenders to make decisions is good because often they make bad ones, or none at all. In the play below, the Bulls must decide between two options, guarding the closest man or guarding their preferred matchup. DeRozan scrambles to find someone to guard because he’d prefer to avoid guarding Horford. When he finally realizes that’s who he’s stuck with, it allows Al to drive by him easily. The Bulls’ failure to match up quickly plays out in the glory of a Rob Williams lob from Al Horford.

There’s no greater skill in basketball than the ability to generate efficient offense individually, and the semi-transition attacks are just that for Jaylen. But that’s not the only way Jaylen puts pressure on the rim. A common position we will see Jaylen attack is when he’s got space above the break, either via a catch and drive or a more traditional isolation.

He’s especially deadly on the catch and go, where he combines his explosive first step with great pre-catch preparation to generate momentum towards the rim before he even gets the ball. Case in point:

He gets into the little Tony Hawk bunny hop right before he gets the ball, and it allows him to explode to the rim despite Larry Nance Jr. being in solid defensive position.

If a defender has to close out, even a small amount and even if he’s a good defender, to paraphrase an insensitive caricature of a New Yorker, “fuggehaboutit.”

The Spurs’ Jeremy Sochan was drafted for his defensive ability, especially his ability to move his feet at his size. Jaylen dusts him so bad I think his hair dye evaporated. And just when you think you’ve got Jaylen cut off from a quick catch-and-go, he can get into his deep duffle of isolation moves (it’s too big for just a bag) to get all the way to the rim.

Watching Jaylen Brown relentlessly attack using his high skill level, absurd first step, and strength to get all the way to the rim and finish regardless of who meets him there is a special experience. The combination of silky, brute force is a rare mix in an athlete, and we’ve got the privilege of watching it night in and night out.

Mm-noom-ba-deh. Doom-boom-ba-beh. Doo-boo-boom-ba-beh-beh.”

The smooth opening salvo of Under Pressure fits the smooth, technical game of the other Jay perfectly. Where Jaylen is the Adrian Peterson-style running back, combining fakes and feints with elite burst, Tatum is Emmitt Smith, reading every hole perfectly and chewing up the exact amount of yardage the defense gives him.

Tatum’s understanding of spacing and his role in the offense has grown so much even from last season, and that’s no more evident than in his rim finishing. Gone are the days of Tatum exclusively settling for useless floaters or bad iso step-backs (I mean he still takes a bad iso step-back every now and then for old times’ sake, I suppose). Now, he’s used his newfound off-ball skills to not only work into open threes, but also to find ways to attack the rim. The varied ways in which he attacks the rim via off-ball movement constantly leaves defenses guessing, and regularly generates easy looks for him at the rim.

Perhaps the biggest development that’s led to Tatum becoming so effective off-ball is his willingness to set screens, read the defense, and roll or pop accordingly. Take this play for example.

Nice hard screen, subtle little push (Bam Adebayo would be proud), hard roll, and it all leads to free throws. Rim pressure with zero dribbles! Tatum has evolved. He’s doing stuff like this regularly off actions where he’s a screener, and not just in the pick-and-roll.

I know he misses this layup (and got fouled!), but it’s about the process. It’s about putting pressure on the defense, making them help, and forcing rotations. Tatum’s added ability to do that without having the ball in his hands has elevated his game from all-NBA guy to MVP candidate.

And I certainly don’t want to insinuate that he can’t get rim pressure with the ball in his hands. Unlike Jaylen who prefers to attack out of empty side isos, Tatum does his best work attacking as the ball handler in high screen and roll/pop situations. His advanced court vision and slick handle, especially for his size, allow him to snake between defenders, get back on balance, and finish around, over, or through help defenders.

He’s also turned himself into an incredible post player, capable of spinning off either shoulder and attacking the paint, like he does in the second play of this video (good off-ball work to get position, too!).

There’s a reason he’s in the 98th percentile for post-up scoring efficiency per Sometimes, he combines his pick-and-roll ball handling ability with his burgeoning post game.

Tatum’s game is so varied at this point, he’s making people defend two types of plays at the same time. He’s at a career high in efficiency around the rim this year and it’s partly because he’s simply become a better finisher, but it’s also partly because he’s getting himself into positions where finishing is easier. Celtics fans begged Tatum to improve his off-ball game this past offseason, and he’s taken it to a level only seen when Freddie Mercury hits the highest of high notes.

“This is our last dance.”

The rim pressure applied by the Jays to opposing defenses is a fundamental tenet of the Celtics offense at this point. Just when you think you’ve got Tatum’s pick-and-roll corralled, he swings it to Jaylen Brown who attacks hard off the catch. I imagine it’s demoralizing trying to defend two big wings that can hurt you in so many different ways. With the way these two keep defenses under pressure, it’s no wonder the Celtics have the best offense of all time. We’ve not seen a duet like this since Freddie Mercury and David Bowie got together in 1981.

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