Where were the Celtics three months ago? They were sitting at the 11 seed in East, getting blown out by their historic rivals, and thinking about splitting the Tatum-Brown duo. Where are the Celtics now? At the 2nd seed, while being one of the hottest teams in the league, entering the playoff as a serious contender after winning 28 out of their last 33 games.
Their turnaround was one of the greatest in recent memory, so how did it happen?
Even before January 7, there were signs of a possible change of gear for the green-and-whites. The record of 18-21 was heavily influenced by the poor performance in the final minutes, playing 23 games finished “in the clutch” and taking home only 7 of them, with a differential out of 100 possessions of -7.6. After that, the Celtics did not improve their performance in the decisive moments of the games (indeed, their Net Rating in those situations is even worse with -9.5), but they just dominated their opponents and avoided clutch situations.
What changed was their offensive performance: before January 7, in fact, the Celtics already had the fifth-best defense in the league and, despite struggling in the point-to-point finals, their differential over 100 possessions was still positive. If the defensive side worked, it was, instead, the attack that crippled them, capable of producing only 109.5 points out of 100 possessions with a 51.6% effective shooting percentage, the sixth-worst in the whole league. Since that loss with the Knicks, the realization percentage has risen by almost 4 percentage points and the green-and-white’s attack took off to 117.4 points scored out of 100 possessions, the seventh-best in the league, and their defense has become an impenetrable fort with 105.2 points conceded on 100 possessions, by far the best in the NBA with a large margin on the second.
Although the main change was in the atmosphere around the team: for months the Celtics seemed drowned in locker room problems, like when Smart accused Tatum and Brown of not wanting to pass the ball or coach Ime Udoka who never missed an opportunity to attack his players for lack of mental strength. But just as the rest of the world tried to figure out new accommodations for Brown or Tatum, Brad Stevens gave an interview to The Athletic saying the two were “the very last of my worries,” pointing out their young age and how difficult it was to go from All-Star rank to superstar.
Arriving at the trade deadline, the Celtics had already begun to fly, collecting six consecutive victories between the end of January and the beginning of February to make a definitive turn. Despite these results, Stevens had the clarity not to sit on his laurels and decided to operate on the market ambitiously: first he exchanged a second choice together with the contracts of Bol Bol and PJ Dozier (both injured) to go below the threshold of the luxury tax; He then decided to ship Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford to San Antonio and Dennis Schröder, Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando to Houston, getting Derrick White and Daniel Theis in exchange. They were not two painless exchanges, given the first choice this year sold to the Spurs, but they were unquestionably winning moves by Stevens, as well as last summer’s decision to get rid of Kemba Walker and bring Al Horford back to the team.
The target was to have a very short roster (after the deadline the Celtics had only ten players with guaranteed contracts) but made up of players able to keep the field in a playoff environment. Considering even the Schröder-White exchange, what Boston has gained in terms of basketball intelligence, altruism, and defensive versatility is almost incalculable: White immediately accepted the role of the sixth man off the bench and, having no contract requirements ( will expire only in 2025) unlike the German in search of figures and dollars, he made himself available to the team, acting as a pure playmaker and facilitator, the right fit in a team that it was just waiting for him to be complete. Despite having a differential at first sight negative (-9.6 of Net rating in 472 minutes, according to Cleaning The Glass), that figure is more the result of the incredible performance of the owners than of his specific shortcomings: when he plays with Tatum and Brown the Net Rating of the trio is +18.9.
Perhaps only Miami can hold its own against Boston’s versatility when they begin to switch on all screens, which it does as frequently as the Heat. The Celtics have strong players in those aspects that theoretically should be the weak points of their role: a guard like Marcus Smart has the size and physical strength necessary to be able to change on any opponent, taking away any opportunity for mismatches; Brown and Tatum have athletic abilities and resilience to manage to hold everybody; Horford and Williams, although technically two longs, have feet and mobility to be able to accept changes without hesitations, knowing that someone can always come behind them to protect the area if they are beaten.
The two most used players from the bench, White and Grant Williams, fit perfectly into the defensive scheme of coach Udoka. The system works mainly thanks to Al Horford’s splendid athletic condition: theoretically, his almost 36 years of age shouldn’t allow him to be the secret that holds together the best defense in the league, but he is.
Coach Ime Udoka doesn’t have a particularly complicated offensive system, but the responsibilities he has invested Tatum and Brown with are paying rewards. The two under-25 wings that the whole league has envied the Celtics for years now seem to be engaged in a hunting trip: every time they take the field they identify a weak point and try to punish his presence on the pitch as if it were a personal affront. Although “mismatch hunting” is an increased overall practice in the NBA (and increasingly frequently in the playoffs), there are few teams able to have two scorers of that size and physicality on the court at the same time, in particular, Tatum, who in the last few two months is simply on fire: almost 30 points on average with 7.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 50% shooting, and 39.5% from three out of 9.4 attempts per game with 88% free in the last 28 games, with two excursions above 50 points and one of 44 points.
His differential between on the pitch and off is simply ridiculous (even more than Nikola Jokic). At the age of just 24 Tatum seems to have reached the final form of his enormous talent, also increasing the involvement of his teammates and making himself an increasingly indecipherable enigma for the opposing defenses. We are now on a par with MVPs like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
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