Sacrifice. That’s been the theme of the Boston Celtics’ season thus far. From Jayson Tatum’s preseason meeting to help determine the starting lineup to the night-to-night shot distribution, the new-look Celtics are putting winning first.
But sacrifice has meant more than just dialing back their responsibilities. Instead, it’s translated to each member of the top six honing in on specific subsets of their games. Their individual sacrifices have led to the amplification of their strengths.
What has each Celtics star been focusing on? How has it transformed their overall game? And, most importantly, how is it benefitting the team?
*One article will be dedicated to each member of the top six players on the Celtics - Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Derrick White, and Kristaps Porzingis.
When Boston traded for Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday this summer, everyone looked at Jaylen Brown. Tatum’s place as the team’s go-to guy was clear, but with two new All-Stars in the fold, Brown was consistently looked at as the one who would need to take a step back.
And in some ways, he has. Brown’s not taking as many shots per game, and his scoring numbers are down, but he’s as involved in the Celtics’ offense as ever.
Brown’s playmaking abilities, highlighted by an elite two-man game with Porzingis, have skyrocketed, but his unspoken sacrifice goes deeper than that. The passing standings out most, but the drives before the pass are the true refinement Brown has zeroed in on.
So far this year, Brown is driving more than anyone on the Celtics—and by a wide margin. His 10.8 drives per game out-mark Tatum’s second-placed 8.6. By the raw numbers, 10.8 is Brown’s lowest number since the 2020-21 season, but he’s taken the lead in that role.
Last season, Brown drove 11.4 times per game, but it was on par with Malcolm Brogdon (11.3) and Tatum (11.2). And in the 2021-22 season, his 11.1 drives ranked third behind Dennis Schroder (11.5) and Tatum (11.4).
But while Tatum and the rest of the Celtics’ top six have focused their efforts in other areas, causing their drives to dip, Brown has made it his mission to get to the basket and make plays from there. He’s getting fewer touches than he has since the 2019-20 season, yet his drives have remained virtually the same. It’s what he’s best at and, in turn, what helps the team win.
Boston’s Saturday night win over the Indiana Pacers was a prime example of Brown’s emphasis on driving. With Tyrese Haliburton in front of him, Brown got to the hoop at will, and it ended in a 31-point night on 12-of-16 shooting from inside the arc.
In Boston’s win over Indiana, Brown scored 11 of his 31 points against Haliburton, shooting a perfect 5-of-5 from the floor against the Pacers guard—all inside the paint.
A similar story was told in the Celtics’ Tatum-less blowout win over the Sacramento Kings, as Brown dropped 28 points and six assists on 11-of-18 shooting from two-point range.
Against Sacramento, Brown shared the love, delivering crushing blows against most of the Kings’ top perimeter talent: 4-of-4 shooting against Kevin Huerter, 2-of-4 against Keegan Murray, and 3-of-3 against De’Aaron Fox.
Brown’s attack is focused on quickness, too. A hefty helping of his drives come in transition and early on in possessions, as 40.8% of his shots have come within the first nine seconds of the shot clock this year.
Initiating the offense quicker gives opposing defenses less time to think, providing Brown with an innate advantage and plenty of time to make a decision on his drives.
And perhaps most impressively, Brown leads the NBA in transition field goal attempts this year at 162, and he’s second in makes behind only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He also ranks fourth in transition frequency among players who have appeared in at least 20 games, and the names he’s in line with are all transition-first, attack-minded role players—KJ Martin (first), Tari Eason (second), and Obi Toppin (third).
Brown, a member of the All-NBA Second Team last year, is getting out in transition just as much as the players who depend on those looks to be effective. He’s turning a playstyle often reserved for role players into a constant mindset on the best team in the NBA.
Cutting out some of the shots he’s less effective at has allowed Brown to find a niche in the Celtics’ offense. He’s still a top offensive option, but when the ball is in his hand, he’s almost always looking to get downhill.
By proxy, it’s been a dunk fest this season.
It’s no coincidence that Brown is one of the league’s leaders in poster dunks. From Rudy Gobert to Trey Lyles to Anthony Black, anyone and everyone who gets in Brown’s way is subject to a potential highlight-reel dunk.
And to come full circle, Brown’s increased comfortability as a playmaker has added a new wrinkle to his already-elite driving abilities. Now, when Brown makes his way into the paint, he’s not only a threat to throw down a monster jam but also capable of finding a teammate on the perimeter.
Early offense in transition leads to a powerful drive, drawing two Utah Jazz defenders and allowing Brown to find a trailing Porzingis for a three-point bucket.
Teams can’t clog the paint in anticipation of a shot at the rim anymore because Brown is actively looking to make a play for others. Add in the threat of him stopping on a dime, turning around, and hitting a nasty fadeaway middy, and Brown has defenses in a chokehold once he gets going toward the hoop.
Brown’s defense has kicked into high gear, his passing is much improved, and his three-point efficiency is up. But it all stems from his drives. That’s the sacrifice (read: refinement) he’s made this season.