Against the New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics took 42 shots from three-point range, which was precisely 50% of their entire offense on the night. They made nine of them, making that contest the Celtics' worst shooting night of the season.
While those tough nights have been few and far between, they have happened. Throughout the season, there has been plenty of discussion on shooting variance and how sometimes, the Celtics struggle to convert their shots from deep, and living with those results will be part of the journey.
Yet, as I sat and watched shot after shot clank off the rim, I wondered, ‘where is the secondary plan?’ ‘What changes can Joe Mazzulla make to ensure Boston gets some momentum and start getting some points on the scoreboard?’
I get it. The math says that if you keep shooting, eventually, the shots will start to fall again. Unfortunately, math is usually based on significant sample sizes, which means there is a very real chance that you can have nights where a cold stretch could spell doom in a single game. In a larger sample size of an 82-game regular season, one bad game won’t matter much, but in the playoffs, one bad game could shift the balance of a series.
Another aspect I noticed in New York was that without Jaylen Brown operating on the weak side, the Celtics went away from their stagger screen actions that have been a vital part of their offensive system all season. Usually, as the ball-handler is acting on the strong side, Boston has a stagger action happening in tandem, allowing a multi-level scorer (usually Brown) to operate as a release valve should the defense close in.
Granted, sometimes the stagger doesn’t occur, but the weakside threat lifts into position to receive the ball and attack the defense while they’re shifting their feet.
Gotta give Tobias Harris credit here. Sticks with Tatum and forces the pass. Boston goes to their 'Gut DHO' series. Horford sets Gut Screen for Tatum. Smart issues DHO. Harris fights over gut screen.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) February 26, 2023
Smart Ghost Screen = No switch. JT forced to pass. Solid curl from JB! pic.twitter.com/XTbUtKlpmc
Either way, a multi-level scorer who can get to their spots and attack the defense after they’ve shut down Boston’s primary option has been vital in their ability to consistently create scoring opportunities.
Yet with Brown out of the game for personal reasons, the Celtics simply didn’t look to create much on second-side actions and instead went to a pick-and-roll heavy offense as they looked to create shooting opportunities off of flares, ghost screens, re-screens, and the like.
Here’s where I had a thought — it might not be a good thought, but it was a thought nonetheless. Why has Jayson Tatum, who was clearly struggling with how the Knicks are defending him, continuing to bring the ball up the court to initiate offense? The guard trio of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, and Malcolm Brogdon are all finding success when penetrating and are more than capable of initiating the offense.
As a starter, Smart has been earning rave reviews for his on-ball creation this season, consistently penetrating before teeing up his teammates for wide-open shots or forcing the defense into an unwanted rotation before finding the open man. White recently showed what he can do when given the opportunity to lead an offense by dishing out 32 assists in three games between February 10 and 14. And we all know that Brogdon is capable of penetrating before finding the open man on the drive and kick.
Wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask Tatum to operate in a similar role to what Jaylen Brown does, operating as the release valve for the offense while one of the team’s guards set the table and eventually fed the All-Star forward to attack the rip-through and get downhill to the rack?
Tatum is currently having the best year of his career when finishing around the rim, with Cleaning The Glass tracking his finishing inside of 4 feet sitting at 70% on 351 attempts. Therefore, to me, putting Tatum in a position to see some shots fall, get his confidence and rhythm going, and then asking him to start initiating the offense again makes total sense.
Perhaps it’s simply that there is too much being asked of both Tatum and Brown, especially when one of them is unavailable for a game, and now we’re seeing that it might be time to start including the other talented players on the roster when it comes to being the offensive initiators. Surely there’s some value to creating for Tatum rather than having him create for himself or others, especially if he’s already struggling to see his shots fall down as he has been in recent games.
With so much talent at his disposal, and a roster full of diverse talent that can make things happen in a variety of ways, it seems redundant to stick with something that clearly isn’t working on the night. Perhaps Mazzulla is saving some ideas for the postseason, or maybe he’s comfortable losing some games due to shot variance.
However, one thing is for sure...if we’re talking about a poor shooting night like this in the playoffs, and adjustments weren’t made, we could be looking at that game as the one which cost the Celtics a chance to progress to the next round, and that would be the worst case scenario after such a stellar season overall.
Hopefully, the Knicks game is all but forgotten when the Celtics face the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night.