A few weeks before the NBA postponed its season in March, the Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum lost 41 points at the Staples Center in a final loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. After the game, LeBron awarded James the NBA’s ultimate approval, when he posted a shot of himself and Tatum on Instagram, with everyone watching in court as they waited to check in for the nationally televised matchup.
“This boi to my left is an ABSOLUTE PROBLEM !! Go on,” James wrote as the caption, adding the hashtag, “#YoungKing.”
Although every narrow loss is confusing, an additional signal that Tatum is one of the top stars of his generation is happy compensation.
Nearly six months later, Absolute Problem is leading a team that is once again in the Eastern Conference mix, as the Celtics have continued their momentum since breaking ground in their rebuilding in 2013. They are on their third All-Star points guard in the span, the permanent veteran Kemba Walker, but they have a largely young roster without the age and experience of Milwaukee or Toronto.
The Celtics are still evolving, and are still refining their roles in a constant wreck and, as for their pair of dynamic wings, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are still learning what tools to leave in the toolbox. They are rounded to form, and Tatum may end up on an All-NBA team as soon as this summer. The extent to which the team can accelerate that growth is likely to determine the Celtics’ fortunes after the season.
Now 2-2 in Orlando, Florida, bubble after a 149-115 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics have shown over the course of the season that they do a lot of things well – not surprising for a team that ranks in the top five in offense and defense . As with all troops, there are natural points of tension. This is good because team building and improvement – both individual and team – is largely achieved through problem solving.
Specifically, Tatum’s voltage point is a product of his budding star – another good problem. He can do several different ways and do it more efficiently this season, but where Tatum thrives in the half court is on isolated possessions. He has grown into a solid pick-and-roll player, but the 22-year-old is deadly if you keep other bodies out of the game and let him attack one-on-one. Among the 85 players who have worked in isolation this season more than 100 times, he is ranked sixth in points per chance, and he has hit more 3-points in iso situations than anyone else than former MVP James Harden.
Tatum came out rolling on Wednesday. During the first minute of the game, he moved left from a Daniel Theis screen and cleared a 3-pointer. About a minute later he got a jump pass from Gordon Hayward on the left side above the arch. With a single dribble, Tatum flew by Caris LeVert and then rose above Joe Harris to scoop the ball from the glass for a simple 2-pointer – at least easily for Tatum. After making two quick mistakes, Tatum was sidelined for much of the first half. With the game in hand, Brad Stevens put his superstar in the fourth quarter the second night of a back-to-back – but not before Tatum lost five 3-pointers in eight attempts. He finished with 19 points in 18 minutes.
Tatum’s iso exploits take place outside the confines of a Celtics system that relies on the active involvement of all five players on the floor. Organization is one of the strengths of Celtic’s offense, but staying organized requires some compromise. The trick for Tatum? To choose their iso possibilities in their best places against the best matchups and then expand their repertoire. A dynamic goal scorer draws a lot of attention, which means that there is a crime for the other four guys. When Tatum kicks the ball out and moves, the Celtics can put defense in a mixer. The same is true if Tatum flies around stagger screens off the ball. He still gets a steady diet of shots, and four other Celtics can float in motion (think Paul George during his jump and beyond). Everyone wins.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combine for 40 points as the Celtics defeat the Nets in Orlando 149-115.
Brown is a fascinating complement to Tatum. Brown is a Swiss Army knife and generates most of his shots in the flow of crime, much like teammate Marcus Smart. With each passing season, he uses his exceptional strength to get to his places – more from Kawhi Leonard’s book than George’s. It is important that he does not lose his game or confidence if the ball does not reach him. Successful teams need generalists like Brown, who have a rare combination of confidence and selflessness.
An exhibition of Brown’s strength that generates opportunities for himself outside the confines of a serious crime came just before half time on Wednesday. On a broken game, Smart corrected a loose ball and drove, only to meet a couple of Net’s defenders and kick the ball out to Brown in the perimeter. With a small false shot, Brown pushed his way through a couple of defenders and then pushed two more under the basket to muscle a lay-out from the glass. He finished with a game-high 21 points, including a wavy 5-for-9 night from 3-point range.
Both Tatum and Brown are linchpins of a disciplined, tight defense that begins with Smart, and this is an important part of their appeal. The Celtics have the changing defense in the East per second spectrum, which is no surprise considering the staff. When opponents look to attack Walker, the Celtics’ experts are switching back to kick him out of the matchup. Aside from Walker and big man Theis, the same core (including the 6-foot-3 Smart, which is a transformer that can play as big or small as you defensively) fits into a modern NBA that rewards versatility. A defense can certainly thrive with a Rudy Gobert, Brook Lopez or Joel Embiid, but as league violations increasingly abandon the color, the Golden State model of a collection of long, stalwart, 6-foot-7 defenders can cause just as many problems.
When we think of teams creating their playing fields for a bunch of big, ready-to-play players who can shoot, Boston is not the first thing that comes to mind. Still, the Celtics’ top five players – Walker, Smart, Tatum, Brown and Hayward – are one of the NBA’s most adaptable teams on both sides of the ball. Everyone except Smart shoots more than 38% beyond the arc (Smart hovers at 35%). Everyone has an adequate handle that can initiate offense, and everyone can switch to almost any NBA match.
The most interesting question for the Celtics that went into the offseason is how aggressively they will use the “Top Five” unit. In 3 minutes, 28 seconds Tuesday against Miami, Heat’s Bam Adebayo took advantage of the matchup, with seven points during the short distance, including eight free throw attempts. More disappointingly, the Celtics converted only one field goal.
Using the top five lineup will be a test of faith for Stevens. It’s a big unknown (players only played 15 minutes together before the bubble this season) with significant ups and downs. In an ideal world, the top five will stretch defenses to their limit, bombing away from long distances, and drifting violently when those defenses stop abandoning. In a catastrophic world, the Celtics will miss Theis’ size and presence, as well as his Marcin Gortat-esque screening genius – giving more results than Tuesday.
Celtic’s uneven performance during the first week of the bubble is of limited concern. Walker continues to work his way back from a knee injury – he sat out Wednesday night’s back to back – and Stevens stressed after Tuesday’s loss that the careful handling of Walker’s minutes in Orlando is a reflection more of caution than concern.
“He’s continuing to strengthen right now,” Stevens said. “When he plays a couple of games in the 30s [minutes], he will feel better about it. Then, in the playoffs, he will be fine. “
Walker’s pick-and-roll mastery will be a crucial ingredient in Boston’s playoff run, along with Smart’s ability to contain and emotional leadership and the healthy Hayward game on the other side. But the Celtics’ 2019-20 season – and their promising future – rests on the continued maturation of Tatum and Brown.
The front office’s goal of gathering a lot of draft picks during their reconstruction was always simple, even if their procurement was complex: Transforming those assets into championship-caliber stars. With Tatum and Brown, the Celtics are doing well on that goal. The summer of 2020 will be the biggest test yet.