BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla called the Celtics into the huddle two points behind, seven seconds to play the Cavaliers. He challenged Grant Williams for an inbound, Al Horford for a cut high and Jaylen Brown for a low, while Williams chose to hit Marcus Smart over the three-point line to hand off to Jayson Tatum, who is racing downhill, or Tatum straight .
“Let’s go. Win the game,” Mazzulla said.
Williams chose Smart and Tatum sped downhill past Dean Wade and threw himself at Jarrett Allen to force overtime and deliver one of the defining moments of the team’s start, even in a loss.
The Celtics have since won 13 of 14 and advanced to the best offensive line in NBA history with 120.9 points per 100 possessions. While Mazzulla is building a case for Coach of the Year, he simply created the structure for Boston’s cast of playmakers to thrive.
Tatum described Boston’s offense as randomness based on trust and reading, rather than calls from the sidelines. Ime Udoka focused on letting the Celtics play free-flowing basketball last season by trying to let his stars become natural playmakers.
It initially led to chaotic results, but a year later Boston connected, composed and added more playmaking and gunplay. Tatum credits being allowed to build and grow together through fights and chides anyone who wanted the team to trade Brown.
“I just trust that every player is making the right play, making the right read and if you give up the ball in the right position, you’re going to get it back. We struggled with that at the beginning of last season,” said Tatum. “Honestly we’re just building on the way we played at the end of last season when we made that turnaround and we just picked up where we left off from that point of view. It’s all about getting the reading right, something we watch movies about, we practice all the time, not necessarily just naming plays, but getting the reading right, where everyone’s on the same page.
Subtle differences distinguish these Celtics compared to a year ago. The addition of Malcolm Brogdon strengthened the second unit. Mazzulla introduced more off-ball screening and Derrick White’s ability to seed it sustained the success of the starting lineup in Robert Williams’ absence. You perform an effective fasting break. The most impactful difference was that the guards were able to handle the ball more and the stress on the Jays was reduced.
Boston’s turnover rate dropped drastically in the first 20 games, turning their fatal playoff mistake into a strength. Only three teams turn the ball less often than the Celtics, having finished 13th in turnover rate in 2022 and 11th of 16 teams in the postseason. Smart is averaging 7.1 assists per game, ranked 11th in the NBA when factoring in the difference in Tatum’s reduced time on the ball with Brogdon.
Off the ball, Brown and Tatum are shielding more than ever, running ahead of the defense and cutting – using magic like Smart’s no-look pass against Dallas on Wednesday. He knew Tatum would cut, and if Tatum hadn’t, Smart would have been furious.
“[Cutting Brown and Tatum means]everything,” Smart said. “They are unstoppable. They’re going to draw so much attention, so when they cut, Al’s gonna get wide open shots, Derrick White, me, Malcolm, Sam (Hauser), we’re all gonna get wide open shots because these guys are cutting and everybody’s going to go down to the paint up them, so tonight we’re just going to keep playing the right game. If it’s for yourself, finish it. If not, find the right game, find the right man that’s open and they did a great job and that’s why our offense kicked the way they kicked.
The Celtics rank fifth in open threes per game (15.9) and sixth in wide open three-pointers (19.2). They are one of three teams attempting over 47% of their field goal attempts from three, which no team did in 2022 after attempting just 42.5% in 2022. 40.3%), assist on 81.5% of their three-pointers made, and only the Lakers use fewer pull-up jumpers than Boston.
The 2022-23 Kings, ranked 12th in all-time offensive standings, struggled to keep up with the Celtics’ historic unit on Friday. Tatum sat and Boston was still scoring 130 points against a top 10 Wizards defense two days later. Without Brown, they poured 140 on the Hornets.
Mazzulla envisions the team having the time and place to take on Mid-Rangers, despite their 7.6 attempts per game placing them 25th.
The Celtics also envision playing bigger like last year once Robert Williams returns and hope for counterattacks when their searing offensive run returns to earth.
They let offense dictate defense, Brown admitted, but stopping a five-out offense where anyone can do anything isn’t easy. Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had never seen a team like this, but it’s an approach Mike Brown helped shape at Golden State.
“It’s crazy. I still can’t really deal with it,” said Mike Brown CelticsBlog/CLNS on Friday. “But you can see that in the development of the youngsters. Before it’s like ‘ok you’re in 10th grade and you’re 6’9 so you go to the right block and work on your right jump hook and your left jump hook and because of what guys did it and guys who do that Game-changing like Steph and LeBron and Kevin Durant, these guys are doing things on the floor for their size that you can’t even imagine happening.’”
“It’s now being transferred to the young people who are watching on TV and you have guys who are 6’9, 6’10 who are playing like the guards were 30-40 years ago and now anybody can shoot, everyone can pass, everyone can dribble and when you find space on the floor with players like that it just becomes so difficult to stop a talented player because he’s kicking it at a guy who’s maybe 6ft 8 but knocks you down can do three, and if you fly at him they don’t care because they’re 6’8 and you’re not going to block their shot. Then the pace, everyone wants to play faster because of the Warriors.”
One crease Mike Brown and Mazzulla agree on is the concept of making the open shot quickly when you find it in the half court. Brown used this emphasis in part to counteract the influence Robert Williams had on the Warriors’ offense during the Finals that summer.
He saw opportunities to catch the Celtics retreating and breaking away from tasks, allowing for offensive rebounds even when those quick shots went wide. Mazzulla saw how open looks led to Celtics turnovers and wanted to cut them out.
For all the Karl-Anthony Towns and Durants willing to do anything when they arrived, big men like Domantas Sabonis and Al Horford adjusted across the course of their careers to run offense and shoot jumpers.
Both players can snap rebounds and go for it without wasting time or allowing defense, adding even more pressure on modern defense. Mike Brown remembers when tall men had to jump onto the half court and toss the ball to a keeper to run the set. Now the Celtics and Kings have complete confidence in their point centers. Brown looks on in amazement, thinking the biggest benefactor is the audience.
“The ball movement is just incredible and I don’t understand how it is 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 and media perspective.”