Lost in the sauce of NBA trade deadline (and…understandably so, I mean, have you been on Twitter?) is the fact that the Celtics had the most impressive and improbable win of their entire season on Wednesday night against the Sixers.
Usually, when you’re facing the best team in the NBA since December 1st without four of your starters, a win isn’t too realistic. This is especially true when the opponent is fully healthy and has one of the most dominant players in the league.
Factor in your lone remaining starter and best player for his season-low 12 points and the chances of the game being remotely competitive only further decrease.
So, someone else must have gone off for the Celtics to win, right?
Wrong. No Celtic scored more than 20 points, but six different Celtics were in double figures. Just solid, balanced, team basketball.
It’s a star’s league, and when half of the superstar tandem leaves the game after colliding into each other, it’s generally expected that the other half picks up the slack; the remaining star usually takes more shots, has a higher usage rate, and has the ball in his hands more. Put simply, more of the offensive load falls on that player.
However, on Wednesday night, JT broke that trend.
Despite his season average of about 22 field goal attempts per game, Tatum only took 15 shots against the Sixers.
It takes a special kind of player – on a night in which his co-star is out, his team is playing against an Eastern Conference rival with a fellow MVP candidate, and the game is on national television – to defer to his teammates.
But, that’s exactly what the maturing superstar did.
Yes, he secured his nine assists in classic Tatum fashion, gliding effortlessly into the lane and kicking out to shooters on the perimeter once the help came. What impressed me more, though, was his constant willingness to make the simple play, even though it didn’t necessarily show up in the stats.
Here, for example, Tatum is hard hedged off of the pick-and-roll, and instead of keeping the ball and trying to make a home run play, he makes the simple short-roll pass to Grant. Williams is then in a 4-on-3 situation and sets up Sam Hauser for the easy look. There’s a level of trust and selflessness that Tatum must possess in order to make plays like that.
This simple yet necessary playmaking is something Tatum has struggled with at times throughout his career, but yesterday might’ve been a turning point in his development of that skill.
It helps, too, when the Celtics are riddled with shooters and decision makers around Tatum. When JT makes the simple pocket pass, for example, he’s often creating an advantage for Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White, Williams, or someone else who can consistently make the right decision with the ball in his hands. Then, that player has an advantage and can find shooters on the perimeter (Blake Griffin, White, Brogdon, and Hauser went a combined 16-24 from 3 yesterday, so that definitely helps, too).
Without Al Horford and Robert Williams, one would’ve expected Joel Embiid to have a field day in the paint.
He’s the strongest, most dominant low-post big man in the league, and he was going up against a front line of Blake Griffin, Luke Kornet, and Grant Williams. All the respect to those guys, but seeing Rob Williams and Al Horford listed as out was, in Embiid’s mind (probably), barbecue chicken.
It was actually more like roasted cauliflower, though. Despite being only 6-foot-6, Grant Williams held his own against Embiid time and time again. He used his low center of gravity and unique strength to force Embiid into pull-up jumpers. And, even though Embiid finished 11-of-21 from the field with 28 points, he never controlled the game like he normally would.
Just look at this possession here. Great hands from Grant to strip the ball from Embiid, and then he’s just willing to get rammed through by one of the most physically daunting players in the league. Williams is a beast.
The Sixers scored 99 points (15 below their season average), and only had two more paint points than the unusually small Celtics. It was, all things considered, an excellent showing for the Celtics defense.
The Celtics have catapulted their once-struggling defense to the top of the league. And, when combined with their balanced offensive attack, they’re the most dangerous team in the entire association.
No game has illustrated that more clearly than Wednesday’s win over Philadelphia.