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Wag the dog: finding the best version of the Celtics heading into the playoffs

Are Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown products of the Celtics offense or does Boston rely on their two All-Stars?

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

I'm paraphrasing an Eric Weiss Twitter thread from earlier this week when he posited that because the media anointed Jayson Tatum an MVP candidate early in the year when not just he, but the team was playing well, when they've struggled of late, it's partly been because Tatum (and Jaylen Brown too a lesser extent) embraced being The Man and the offensive system subsequently crumbled around him. As Weiss puts it, “unlocking Tatum’s top game is currently predicated on motion principles - like GSW, not PnR/ISO, like Luka, LBJ, etc - the heliocentric club. The latter being mass marketed as the ‘superstar’ norm to conform to.”

There’s no doubt that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are superstars, but as Weiss points out, not in the same “heliocentric” way that we traditionally define superstars. They can of course create off the dribble and out of the pick-and-roll and spray the ball to open teammates. The great ones all can and do — to an extent. For the Celtics, head coach Joe Mazzulla has built a more democratic style of basketball and President of Basketball of Operations Brad Stevens has filled the roster with players to complement it.

The Jays will still get the bulk of the shots and all the responsibilities they can handle. However, it’s how all that is generated that makes the biggest difference between a good Celtics team and a great Celtics team that could hang Banner 18 this summer.

During your average Luka Doncic or LeBron James offensive possession, you might see them start working off a screen or even clearing out the side in isolation — a single engine star surrounded by specialists. Boston, on the other hand, has put together an 8-10 man rotation of “do everything” players with Brown and Tatum as their best “do everything” players that work more like the randomness of the Big Bang rather than a solar system of planets revolving around a sun.

Against the visiting Trail Blazers, the Celtics didn’t exactly split the atom. They did, however, seem to recapture some of their offensive spark that’s alluded them in their 4-4 stretch after the All-Star break. Their second possession versus admittedly a less-than-inspired Portland defense is the epitome of Celtics basketball.

Some things of immediate note: 1) the design is to put the ball in Boston’s primary decision makers, Tatum and Brown. Derrick White might start with the ball, but he immediately goes into a dribble hand off with JT. After the ball skips across to Marcus Smart, he angles towards Brown (presumably into another DHO) and instead drives into a ton of space in the key. The ball bounces around the perimeter into a wide open Al Horford corner 3.

It’s a great example of what Mazzulla has been preaching since training camp: passing up good shots for great shots. The Celtics are shooting 40% from the corner pockets. Those are great shots.

Now, these two plays set up to be what look like a traditional superstar set: Tatum and Brown receive the ball above the break with a screener to create the slightest crack to take advantage of. Instead, as soon as the defense shifts a step or two (in Tatum’s case, he’s doubled), they’re moving the ball right away and early in the shot clock.

It may seem counterintuitive at first. You want your best players with the ball in their hands as much as possible, but herein lies the key to Mazzulla ball. The Celtics head coach can field a fivesome where everybody can do everything all the time. And with the ball whipping around the floor quicker than the defense can rotate and eventually, all those defensive recoveries yield a great shot. Maybe eventually it ends up in Jaylen and Jayson's hands, maybe not.

Sam Hauser is a good barometer of how well Boston is moving the ball. This Spain PnR involving Tatum, Malcolm Brogdon, and Blake Griffin ends with neither of them in great scoring position. Instead, it’s Hauser that ends up with — you guessed it — another corner pocket three-pointer. Hauser might actually be the most limited offensive player in the Celtics extended rotation. However, if the ball’s poppin’, it just seems to find him in the right spot. If he’s getting great looks, Boston is playing the right way.

However, if there’s an ideal Celtics player, it’s Derrick White. Back in October, I wrote:

He plays the game in constant motion, flowing like the wind. While at times it seems like darting randomness, there’s purpose in his flight, floating around the court like a hummingbird surveying a garden. He is not the Celtics best player or second, third, or fourth, but there may not be a better player that illustrates how Boston wants to play the game.

He thrives in Boston’s system like Manu Ginóbili on the beautiful basketball Spurs. Need him to act as a screener like a big and then become a point guard in the short roll? He can do that. Fill a driving lane on a fast break, be a threat in the corner, and cut into space in semi-transition? Sure.

Per ShotQuality, the Celtics rank 4th in adjust shot quality and 1st in Rim & 3 Rate, shooting a whopping 75% of their shots from either behind the arc or at the rim. On Wednesday, Mazzulla addressed some the hand-wringing over the amount of three-pointers the team has taken this year. “I always had a question when we shoot a lot of threes and miss, everybody asks me questions, but when we shoot a lot of layups and miss, nobody asks me anything,” he said after Boston missed ten layups against Portland.

Celtics shot chart vs. Trail Blazers
courtesy of NBA Stats

The Celtics shot 19-of-29 in the restricted area and 18-of-49 from behind the arc with just ten of their shots in between. He continued to say that Boston’s shot profile was really good throughout the night, but his comment was another reminder that at Game #67, the Celtics have a very deliberate way they want to approach their offense.

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