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Pace and patience: how the Celtics found the right offensive tempo

Pace is important, but it’s not the only thing. To play at their best, the Celtics need to find the right offensive tempo.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Pace is a common concept in NBA circles. When we hear pace, we usually think speed; it means they play fast. Get out on the break, exploit semi-transition, take the first good shot that comes your way. It implies a type of offense that doesn’t necessarily include the halfcourt. My mind immediately goes to a long-haired Canadian throwing lobs to a man in Rec-specs while Mike D’Antoni pretends defense doesn’t exist.

Pace is great, but it’s not everything. Going fast isn’t always the optimum way to play. Sometimes, it pays to go a little slower, and sometimes it doesn’t. An offense has to strike a delicate balance between pace and patience. I call this tempo. When to attack quick and when to let the spacing get right are necessary variables in the efficient offense equation. When the Celtics have their tempo right, like they did in Game 7 against the 76ers, they are nearly unbeatable.

The quick-hitting, high-flying frenzied lobs of Robert Williams contrast with the deliberate efficiency of a patiently run Tatum-Smart pick-and-roll to form the best offense in the NBA.

If the Celtics offense is a college drumline trying to stay focused and keep their tempo, Jayson Tatum is Nick Cannon, which is a reference to a movie I have not actually seen. Nonetheless, from browsing the Wikipedia briefly, it’s clear that Nick is the mercurial leader that steps up when they need him most. To say Tatum stepped up on Sunday would be a criminal understatement of his performance.

The 51 points weren’t the most impressive stat though -- it was his zero turnovers. He didn’t respond to the game, it responded to him. Jayson Tatum set the time at which both teams played and watched as it unfolded according to his plans. He put together an epic performance in front of a raucous crowd, just like Nick Cannon at the end of Drumline.

Pace came first. Tatum is the king of slowly meandering up the court, frustrating fans (and maybe his teammates sometimes). Not in Game 7.

This is a pretty simple play, but it’s indicative of his mindset from the opening tip.

As Tatum gets the inbound from Rob, he sees James Harden finishing up his natural shooting motion (naturally, from the ground) and Joel Embiid “running” back on defense (and I use that word loosely). Knowing there’s an advantage to be had, Tatum darts up floor with the dribble. Watch Al Horford the second he sees Tatum’s pace. He is gone, Embiid is left in the dust and it’s a quick hit-ahead from Tatum over to Jaylen Brown, and finally to Al for a wide-open transition three off of a made basket.

There’s an infectious quality to playing fast and smart. Look at Marcus Smart just a handful of possessions later. Tatum sets the tempo, and guys like Marcus will help him keep it, not unlike fellow Drumline co-star Leonard Roberts did for Nick Cannon, I assume.

The Celtics repeatedly tried to attack quick, but when it didn’t work, patience was king. The common complaint about Tatum’s game is his tendency to slow things down, seemingly when he has an advantage. Sometimes though, that’s a feature, not a bug. Watch him on this play where he catches in the corner and patiently waits for Jaylen to space out, dragging Harden with him.

As the lane opens, Tatum attacks with an under-control speed that’s often a bellwether for his big nights. You can almost count the beats as Harden begrudgingly follows Tatum’s All-NBA teammate out of the paint, and on 4, he goes.

But pace and patience aren’t mutually exclusive. They aren’t two ends of a spectrum. They are complementary concepts. Here’s an illustrative example, where the ball doesn’t move all that quickly, but Tatum is undoubtedly playing with pace.

I’m not sure why, but something about the maniacal way he keeps fighting to force Embiid on him is very endearing. You can tell how much Jayson Tatum wanted to win this game. He’s patient as he ducks and weaves trying to bait Embiid into a switch, while zipping around him like a pesky fly. To Smart’s credit, he’s read the plan and waits until it’s appropriately executed before getting off the ball. No silly drive, no questionable pass, just mature patience while his superstar gets into position. The result is a beautiful drive for a Tatum lefty layup.

With the Heat on the horizon, a team far more adept at making offenses uncomfortable than the Sixers, finding their pace and patience will be huge for the Celtics. They’ll need to strike the right tempo to keep Miami in rotation and not turn the ball over. If you play Miami’s game, they will beat you. But if Jayson Tatum and the Celtics keep up this tempo, they will be very hard to beat. Eat your heart out, Nick Cannon.

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