#1 Tatum turns it up
Jayson Tatum, Tatum’d.
He was Tatum’ing.
The pull-up jumper, which has been pretty bad this season (30.4%,) is starting to come around, and it’s unlocked the rest of Tatum’s perimeter game. Since January 1, he has been shooting 62.5% on his pull-up threes. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but everyone has seen the improvement.
Against the Indiana Pacers, 8 of Tatum’s 14 made buckets came from deep. He hit jumpers off the dribble and off the catch. With his shot falling, he’s more of a threat off the dribble. Of course, Tatum has also become an interior threat, both when driving out of the slot/wing area and when getting into the post. As such, Indiana’s defense was quick to react when he threatened to penetrate, which led to some off-the-dribble counters.
When Tatum hits shots from all three levels, this is the effect it has on the defense. Myles Turner tries to stay in front of Tatum while rotating over on defense. Tatum threatens the drive, hits a snatch-back dribble, and sends the Pacers big man stumbling into the paint. I mean, he stumbled so far that he ended up boxing out on Tatum’s shot.
As soon as Tatum created the space, he flowed into a dribble pull-up. Cash. The threat of his drive led to a wide-open three. That’s the value of Tatum’s perimeter jumper falling.
For what it’s worth, I love the fluidity in Tatum’s mid-range game, especially in the shot above. Having that mid-range game is another wrinkle that unlocks the defense, especially when they’re already trying to contain the drive and the perimeter.
In Saturday’s game, it felt like Tatum had unlocked his offense and found counters for whatever the Pacers threw at him. It was the same on defense, too. He ended the night with 14 boards and a 40% defensive field goal percentage, holding his man to 4-of-10 shooting and, more importantly, 0-of-5 from deep.
We will look at the overall team defense later in these takeaways, but from an individual standpoint, Tatum had a solid game on both sides of the floor. And that’s without diving into his impact as an off-ball threat with his cutting, screening, and spacing.
He’s an All-Star, folks.
#2 Brown got hot, too
Jaylen Brown also found his offensive dominance. His physicality when driving to the rim pressured the Pacers' defense time and time again. 12 of his 13 makes came inside the paint. Brown has become an incredible interior scorer, using his strength, speed, changes of pace, and athleticism to get to his spots.
These types of drives are becoming synonymous with how Brown attacks the rim. Drops his shoulder, changes his pace, and absorbs the contact en route to the rim. The fact he can do this while also going East to West on his drive, keeping his angle, and getting a quality shot has been an impressive development for him throughout the season.
He’s also showing more poise in the face of a stern defense. In the clip below, Brown drives into two defenders, almost loses his dribble, recovers, and hits a step-through floater in the paint.
Similar to Tatum, Brown has found ways to unlock his offense. Sometimes, that will be with a catch-and-shoot three, but for the most part, he’s embracing his role as a primary interior scorer, and that’s leading to some solid performances and improved playmaking ability with his rim reads.
This wasn’t his best night in terms of creating for others in the traditional sense. However, he was a valuable spacer, cutter, and secondary driver, which all forced the Pacers' defense into difficult situations.
#3 Horford was everywhere
Kristaps Porzingis left the game early in the first quarter due to an eye injury. Al Horford stepped into a bigger role and had his fingerprints all over the game. He made big plays on both sides of the floor, including this transition block on Jalen Smith.
Horford’s ability to leave an imprint on the game was integral to Boston’s overall rhythm, especially with how he embraced being a playmaker for his teammates. He was the game leader in assists, which, when you consider that Tyrese Haliburton was also on the floor, is mightily impressive.
I like to think of Horford as a metronome. He is the beat the Celtics follow. I liked the above play for how Horford kept it simple. He trailed the ball-handler to offer rebounding or a passing outlet and quickly made a read to find Hauser open on the weakside wing. The speed of that decision fits into the pace Joe Mazzulla wants from his team and symbolizes the improvements in processing speed we’re seeing from Boston’s collective unit.
Of course, Horford also did some work on the glass (seven rebounds) and on the scoreboard (10 points); however, it was his willingness to slot in as a connector that made him such a valuable member of the rotation on Saturday night.
#4 Some stellar defense
The Pacers came into this game having dropped 150 points on the Atlanta Hawks just 24 hours earlier. Boston looked to counter that offensive upside by locking in on the defense end and smothering drives while also rapidly closing out to shooters.
We can point to a bunch of defensive clips, both in terms of individual performance and a collective commitment to playing within the system. Still, I wanted to share a clip that I thought was a highlight possession, and it came in the opening moments of the second quarter.
This clip is what team defense is all about. Everybody rotates, everybody talks, close-outs have a purpose, and there is a connectedness with how each member of the defense moves. Hand-offs are canceled, pressure is asserted, and a mistake follows. There were multiple defensive possessions like the one above, but the fact that TJ McConnel made such an uncharacteristic error is what made me select this one as an example.
We also got to see some zone from the Celtics, which is something we expected coming into the season but have rarely seen. Below, Boston line up in a 2-1-2 zone.
Notice how Boston still keeps their principle of pinching toward the nail on drives to take away the center of the floor and pressure the ball-handler. In this instance, it leads to travel.
#5 Defending actions: Floppy touch exit
This was a good play design from the Pacers. They looked to get Buddy Heild — their best movement shooter — an open look on the perimeter. As such, the Pacers run a floppy action. However, Payton Pritchard stays connected through Hield cut, navigating three screens and keeping his man at arm's length.
As such, Hield goes into a ‘touch’ action as he realizes he doesn’t have the space to square his hips and rise up on the shot. The Pacers then flow into a strong side exit screen for Bennedict Mathurin. However, Oshae Brissett does a good job of navigating the screen and making an impact on the shot release.
I spend a lot of time pointing out the actions Boston runs, so I thought it would be fun to look at how they defend some, too.
#6 Committing to the paint
I touched on this with Tatum and Brown. The entire Celtics team made a conscious effort to attack the paint on Saturday. The Pacers' defense is designed to limit threes and force teams to get downhill. Rather than trying to fight against Indiana’s system, Boston went with it and made them pay with some great interior performances.
The Celtics took 90 shots against the Pacers, 49 of which came inside the three-point line, with 33 makes.
For a team that has often been criticized for relying too heavily on the three-point line, the Celtics thrived in a game where the remit was to get downhill and pressure the rim. Credit to Mazzulla and his coaching team for being flexible in their approach to constructing a gameplan, and to the Celtics roster for being diverse enough to excel in a physical game inside the paint.
#7 Some good flashes from Sam Hauser
Sam Hauser keeps adding to his game. Whether it’s something as simple as holding the ball high on his gather toward the rim to something bigger like adding a diverse range of layps when attacking closeouts, he continues to impress with how he’s expanding his overall offensive “bag.”
Notice how Haliburton’s feet are planted after his closeout. Hauser makes the most of his defender being stuck for a second by driving the closeout and testing Haliburton’s ability to flip his hips and change direction from being stationary. Once he’s on the move, the third-year forward gets toward the baseline and finishes with a nice reverse layup to use the rim as a shot-protector from the block.
Yes, we need Hauser to find his shooting touch again. He’s at his best when nailing threes. Still, adding some variance to his game will ensure he’s got a little bit of unpredictability in his game, and that will only help open things up for him moving forward.
Oh, and before I move on, allow me to leave you with this nice defensive rotation from Hauser.
#8 Gettin’ nerdy with it: Something out of Boston’s zipper series
I’m a sucker for whenever an action is built around both Tatum and Brown. So, I wanted to share this one.
Tatum and Kornet go into a “zipper” action, with Tatum getting the ball on the strong side elbow. Derrick White, who has just passed to Tatum, then sets a wide pin-down for Jaylen Brown, who curls toward the nail. Tatum waits for Brown to get his foot in the paint before letting go a quick bounce pass. A bunny floater from Brown, bucket.
Ok, this play isn’t anything fancy, but it got Boston’s two best players into action together and ended in a bucket — that’s a win in my book.
#9 Gettin’ nerdy with it: More out of the chin series
It feels like this is starting to become the Celtics' go-to series. We’ve looked at these chin actions a lot lately, so I will keep this brief and share some clips of plays I liked out of these actions.
What I will say about the above play, is I like how Boston mixed things up by getting White to curl his cut toward the strong side block. By doing that, the Celtics manipulated the weakside low-man as he rotated over to tag White and anticipate the pass. That left Jrue Holiday wide open in the weakside corner.
This time, the Celtics go to Tatum after the “chin cut’ and let the offense flow from there. And then, in the below clip, they use something out of their “chin series” as a decoy, which is then followed by some exquisite ball movement.
#10 Oshae Brissett is earning his minutes through hustle
If you’ve listened to me on any podcasts this season (and if you haven’t, please consider doing so) then you’ve heard me share my opinions on Oshae Brissett.
I was wrong.
He’s earning his minutes with hustle, high-energy defense, and a commitment to being a valuable role player off the bench. I would still like his offense to improve, but overall, he’s becoming an important asset for the Celtics. He has good size and length, great intangibles, a solid motor, and a charisma about him that appears to have allowed him to slot into the dynamic of the locker room with ease.
Brissett can spell some wing minutes off the bench and provide an energy spark that uplifts the team. He’s been great over this recent stretch.
The Celtics and Pacers will face off for a rematch on Monday. After being held to a season-low in scoring, Indiana will have a point to prove, which could lead to an even more competitive game. Still, the Celtics seem to be raising their level so that the Pacers will have a tough task ahead of them.
Until then, enjoy what’s left of the weekend, and I will catch you on Tuesday.