BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla called the Celtics to the huddle trailing by two points with seven seconds to play against the Cavaliers. He called on Grant Williams to in-bound, Al Horford to cut high and Jaylen Brown low while Williams decided between hitting Marcus Smart above the three-point line to handoff to Jayson Tatum racing downhill, or Tatum directly.
“Here we go. Win the game,” Mazzulla said.
Williams chose Smart and Tatum raced downhill past Dean Wade and threw down on Jarrett Allen to force overtime and provide one of the signature moments of the team’s start, even in a loss.
The Celtics have won 13-of-14 since and ascended to the top offense in NBA history, scoring 120.9 points per 100 possessions. As Mazzulla builds a case for Coach of the Year, he’s simply created the structure for Boston’s cast of playmakers to flourish.
Tatum described Boston’s offense as randomness, built on trust and reads, rather than any calls from the sideline. Ime Udoka focused on letting the Celtics play free-flowing basketball last season by trying to let his stars become natural playmakers.
It led to messy results initially, but one year later, Boston is connected, composed and added more playmaking and shooting. Tatum credits being allowed to build and grow together through struggles, chiding anyone who wanted the team to trade Brown.
“Just trusting that each guy’s gonna make the right play, make the right read and if you give the ball up, in the right position, you’re gonna get it back. We struggled with that at the beginning of last season,” Tatum said. “Honestly, we’re just kind of building off the way that we were playing at the end of last season when we made that turnaround, and we’ve just kind of picked up from where we left off from that standpoint. It’s all about making the right read, something that we watch film on, we practice all the time, not necessarily just calling plays, but making the right read, everybody being on the same page.”
Subtle differences define these Celtics compared to one year ago. The addition of Malcolm Brogdon bolstered the second unit. Mazzulla instituted more off-ball screening and Derrick White’s ability to set them maintained the starting lineup’s success in Robert Williams’ absence. They run an effective fast break. The most impactful difference stemmed from allowing the guards to handle the ball more and alleviating the burden on the Jays.
Boston’s turnover rate drastically decreased through the first 20 games, turning their fatal flaw from the playoffs into a strength. Only three teams turn the ball over less often than the Celtics after they finished 13th in turnover rate in 2022, then 11th out of 16 teams in the postseason. Smart is averaging 7.1 assists per game, 11th in the NBA, assuming the difference in Tatum’s reduced time on the ball with Brogdon.
Off-ball, Brown and Tatum are screening more than ever before, running ahead of the defense and cutting — setting up magic like Smart’s no-look pass against Dallas on Wednesday. He knew Tatum would cut, and if Tatum didn’t, Smart would’ve been furious.
“(Brown and Tatum cutting means) everything,” Smart said. “They’re unstoppable. They’re gonna draw so much attention, so by them cutting, Al’s gonna get wide open shots, Derrick White, me, Malcolm, Sam (Hauser), we’re all gonna get open shots because of those guys cutting and everybody’s gonna sink to the paint on them, so tonight we’re just continuing to make the right play. If it’s for themselves, finish it. If not, find the right play, find the right guy who’s open and they’ve been doing a tremendous job of that and that’s why our offense has been kicking the way it’s been kicking.”
The Celtics rank fifth in open threes per game (15.9) and sixth in wide open three-point attempts (19.2). They’re one of three teams attempting over 47% of their field goal attempts from three, something no team did in 2022, after attempting only 42.5% in 2022. The Celtics lead the league in threes made each night (16.7) and efficiency (40.3%), assisting on 81.5% of their made threes and only the Lakers take fewer pull-up jumpers than Boston.
The 2022-23 Kings, who ranked 12th in all-time offensive rating, struggled to keep up with the Celtics’ historic unit on Friday. Tatum sat and Boston still posted 130 points against a top-10 Wizards defense two days later. Without Brown, they poured 140 on the Hornets.
Mazzulla envisions the team having a time and place to take mid-rangers, even though their 7.6 attempts per game rank 25th.
The Celtics also imagine playing bigger, like they did last year, once Robert Williams returns, providing some hope for counters if their scorching offensive run comes back to earth.
They’ve let offense dictate defense, Brown admitted, but it isn’t easy to stop a five out offense where everyone can do everything. Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had never seen a team quite like it, but it’s an approach Mike Brown helped craft in Golden State.
“It’s crazy. I still can’t really grasp my mind around it,” Mike Brown told CelticsBlog/CLNS on Friday. “You can see it just in the development, though, of young people coming up. Before, it’s like ‘ok, you’re in 10th grade and you’re 6’9, so you go down on that right block and work on your right-hand jump hook and your left-hand jump hook, and because of what guys have been able to do and guys that have been able to change the game like Steph and LeBron and Kevin Durant, these guys do things on the floor for their size that you can’t even imagine happening.’”
“It gets translated now to the young guys watching on TV, and you’ve got guys that are 6’9, 6’10 that are playing like guards were back 30-40 years ago, and so now everybody can shoot, everybody can pass, everybody can dribble, and when you space the floor with players like that, it just makes it so tough to try to stop a talented player, because he’s kicking it to a guy that might be 6’8, but can knock down a three, and so when you’re flying at him, they don’t care, because they’re 6’8 and you’re not gonna block their shot. Then the pace, everybody wants to play faster because of the Warriors.”
A wrinkle Mike Brown and Mazzulla agree on is the concept of taking the open shot quickly when you find it into the half court. Brown implemented that emphasis, in part, to counter the impact Robert Williams had on the Warriors’ offense during The Finals over the summer.
He saw opportunities to catch the Celtics retreating and detached from assignments, allowing offensive rebounds even if those quick shot missed. Mazzulla saw passing up open looks leading to Celtics turnovers and wanted to cut those out.
For all the Karl-Anthony Towns and Durants prepared to do it all on arrival, big men like Domantas Sabonis and Al Horford adapted over the court of their career to run offense and shoot jumpers.
Both players can grab rebounds and go, initiating in the full court without wasting any time or allowing defenses to set, adding even more pressure on the modern defense. Mike Brown remembers when big men needed to jump stop into the half court and dump the ball to a guard to run the set. Now, the Celtics and Kings have full confidence in their point centers. Brown watches in amazement, and thinks the biggest benefactor is the audience.
“The ball movement is just unbelievable, and I don’t understand how it’s like this now,” he said. “I don’t know if it can stay like this, but I’m sure it’s fun to watch, especially from a fan standpoint and media standpoint too.”