Celtics Soaring: 12–2 Start Has Shown Power of Trust

In July, 2013, Danny Ainge gave Brad Stevens a six year coaching contract. Before he’d coached a single NBA game. Really consider that for a moment. Stevens had shown coaching brilliance at Butler, and was so young that he didn’t have to fight a generational gap with professional athletes who come into the NBA with varying levels of maturity, many of whom are college aged. In that sense, it was entirely logical to choose a wunderkind young coach for a franchise figuring out how to rebuild without tanking.

When the Brooklyn Nets offered a perfect solution to the rapid rebuild, Ainge jumped and then jumped on Stevens. Maybe it was the only path to NBA coaching Stevens would have taken. A rebuild where you gather solid players who other teams misused or didn’t support well. A rebuild where you get to compete the whole time. Trust in Stevens. And therefore Stevens and his staff of assistants, some of whom came from Butler and who he clearly trusts, can develop trust with each player. For a while, that trust was temporary, and involved mutual benefits.

Think Jordan Crawford or Evan Turner. Crawford had two NBA skills. Off the charts self-confidence and herky-jerky penetrations that led to low-percentage driving shots. Turner’s dominance in college had him labeled as an NBA bust, despite some early success in Philadelphia. The Pacers traded for him and stashed him in the corner, where his worst offensive trait (shooting) was highlighted. Turner’s value plummeted. Ainge took a flier, likely with Stevens’ input. Instead of flaming out, Turner shined, eventually signing a sweet four year deal with Portland. While he was a Celtic, Turner continually improved, playing inspired defense, using his length to disrupt passes, and finishing tough shots and turnarounds in the lane. Yes, there were odd moments and careless blunders, but they were overshadowed by his positive crunch-time performances and games where he just took over.

Those success stories get discussed by other non-stars in the NBA. Go to Boston, and your NBA career will last a lot longer and you’ll get that deal. It trickled up and helped Boston land Horford in free-agency, which led to Hayward and Kyrie’s desire to play for this coach. And yet, without Hayward, the Celtics are 12–2, sitting atop the East, curious to see how they look against Golden State on Thursday. Everyone is tempted to praise Kyrie, some already mentioning the MVP. Can we wait until Christmas for these endless MVP click-bait articles?

Kyrie

Kyrie Irving has been excellent, and shown he can defend and make tons of unselfish plays, even tricky cross-court passes, in addition to his unparalleled one-on-one shiftiness, off-the-bounce mastery, and billiard-spinning shot-making.

External Expectations vs Internal Expectations

In a sense, Hayward’s injury took some of the pressure off Kyrie. New stars with huge contracts and high expectations have to go through a feeling out process. The external expectations went away when Hayward was carted off on Opening Night. The internal expectations remained unwavering because Stevens imbues that “next play, next game” mentality. 82 games rewards, in fact demands, that marathon mindset.

Anyone locking the Celtics into an NBA Finals appearance after 14 games, especially in a strange year of little team-to-team continuity and early schedule chaos…is getting ahead of themselves. Boston has yet to face the Warriors, Rockets, healthy Spurs (Kawhi), healthy Cavs, or the Wizards. Still, 12 wins in a row is reassuring and affirming of the team’s future. Injuries do tend to bring groups that trust each other and believe in themselves together. Hayward’s injury certainly did that.

Jayson Tatum

Jayson Tatum. Steady. Not often used to describe NBA rookies. Especially 19 year-old rookies. Tatum uses his length on leaning, scooping drives. Imagine a high-jumper clearing the bar. Serious core strength. Like a smoother Paul Pierce, who was doing it by the time he was 24 or 25. Tatum is 19. Its hard to exaggerate Tatum’s offensive upside. In an offense buoyed by Kyrie Irving’s dynamism, Horford’s everything, and Aron Baynes’ deadly screens, Tatum and Brown are taking advantage of off-kilter defensive scrambling with decisive moves.

Catch-and-shoot is a term we use to describe a quickly released outside shot. A catch-and-shoot three is a preferable three. This year, the Celtics are 12th in the NBA (38.1%) on catch-and-shoot threes. Only 5 of those 11 teams above them have taken more catch-and-shoot threes.

But consider the impact of long arms and height. Even without time to lift, Tatum releases his 25-footer from a higher angle than most above-average three-point shooters. Think about Durant and Klay and peak Korver. A decisive catch-and-shoot corner three from Tatum or Brown is harder to defend than one from Avery Bradley or even Jae Crowder. Why? Height plus wingspan.

Its what has made the Warriors so unguardable. Its one factor that allows Harden to create fouls when there is no opening. Long arms thrown toward moving defenders, initiating contact, forcing the refs to figure out what happened in a split second. Pierce used his length and guile to live at the free-throw line. Tatum is 6'8" 1/2 and his wingspan is 6'11".

Tatum’s shot chart is unavailable at NBA savant at the moment. Probably because the rookie is 20 of 42 (47%) from deep. 19 of those 20 three-pointers made have been assisted. Catch. Shoot. Score.

The demand to see his bright red corner threes is too great! It’s early, but man…the early returns are damn promising for young Jayson.

Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart

Speaking of length, Jaylen Brown stretches 7' with arms fully extended. Brown’s athleticism sometimes overwhelms us, but its his intelligence, length, poise, and anticipation that give him superstar potential and make him an ideal defender in the pick-and-roll heavy, switching modern NBA. Consider that the Avery Bradley trade couldn’t have been made without the belief in Jaylen blossoming in a bigger role. When Hayward went down, Jaylen’s responsibilities grew. I can’t remember a 20 year-old playing a more important role on a potential 55+ win team.

Brown has swooped in and taken on Avery Bradley’s defensive-focused shooting guard role, gathering 6.9 boards per game, while connecting on 38% from deep, and attempting 4 free-throws per game, even if he’s only making 60% from the stripe at the moment. Barely turning the ball over. He’s 20 years old.

While Jaylen’s corner three looks great (especially that 8 of 14 corner), his range is still limited. Unlike Bradley, Brown’s height and leaping ability allow him to slash toward the rim and draw fouls. I loved Bradley’s steady evolution into a knockdown shooter, but I’m amazed how quickly Jaylen has taken on such a big role. While it’s still too early to assume he can maintain the scoring, I thought he was at least another year away from this level.

During a shot-clock-threatened possession against Toronto on Sunday, the Celtics ahead-of-schedule offense (sans Kyrie) was on display. The newly calmed Marcus Smart, whose patience with the ball has led to 55 assists and only 17 turnovers (3.2:1 ratio) in the last 8 games, had the ball above the break with five on the clock. Instead of forcing a contested off-balance floater, Smart found a quick back-stepping Brown in the corner for a three that Brown released over the outstretched arms of DeMar DeRozan. It was a shot that Smart wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see had Isaiah or Kyrie been controlling the offense. It was a look that Jaylen wouldn’t have had if Bradley or Hayward were on the court. These young Celtics are taking their opportunities and making the most of them. Here’s a look at Jaylen’s heat map. Notice the hot corner, and the 10 of 16 from mid-range. The 3 of 18 in the paint (outside the hoop circle) is the next area of improvement. Shooting 33.3% above the break on threes is about league average…but not for a 20 year-old!

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Let’s call that Jaylen’s corner.

Horford Leads the Way

Al Horford can’t miss from deep. He’s transforming from a pick-and-pop big man with great play-making skills to a stretch five. The added three-feet of range is crucial and has further extended defenses to the point where his slashing ability is a greater threat.

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I can’t decide which is more surprising: Horford’s 6 of 7 from the corners, or 13 of 32 above the break. nbasavant.com

Bench Roles: All Nominated for Supporting Actor

The Celtics were the first team to win 11 in a row while playing more than 4 rookies in the 11th straight win. They played 5. Who are these rookies and where were each of them one year ago?

Jayson Tatum
Tatum was a blue-chip recruit who played at Duke last year. Ironically, when I searched for “Jayson Tatum” “shot chart,” I got his Duke shot chart, with an article that described his shots as “iffy.” Because the guy can actually play between the rim and the three-point line. And now he’s draining his threes like a 10 year vet.

Daniel Theis
German Birdman. Defensive Player of the Year in the German League. Most fans probably haven’t heard of the German League. Theis is the German Chris Anderson. Remember Birdman? Before the Michael Keaton film? Theis keeps his wings high, moves his feet like a high jumper, and keeps rebounds alive, makes deflections, and is a lob threat at the rim. Great scouting by the Celtics front office.

Semi Ojeleye
Ojeleye transferred from Duke to SMU. Semi’s size, strength, and quickness make him a defensive force. Knocking down threes (which he’s shown he can do) is a bonus. Semi’s a full 2nd Round steal already. Imagine how good a whole Ojeleye would be? (Couldn’t resist.)

Guerschon Yabusele
Drafted and stashed. Yabusele played in China last year. Like Semi, Stevens has hopes of seeing Yabusele running the floor, draining threes, and guarding shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards, and everyone else.

Abdel Nader
Last year’s Celtics D-League player of the year, Nader’s tenacity and length make him suited to play a nice reserve defensive role. Offense would be a bonus. His ceiling would be Thabo Sefolosha, which isn’t bad.

Rozier to the Rescue

Those are the rookies, but the growth of Terry Rozier has been impressive in the first 14 games of the season. Without Hayward, without Smart for a few games early, and now without Kyrie for most of the last two, Rozier’s performances have become key factors off the bench. In Sunday’s nail-biting win over Toronto, Rozier hit two end of quarter threes, which kept Boston in the game, lifting them before each break. Those momentum plays, combined with his loose-ball gathering, perimeter-pestering defense, and crazy leaping rebounds, are passion-producing plays. Sparks. Many feel the Celtics will use the disabled player exception in order to spark the offense off the bench. Until then, its been wonderful to see Rozier making % ??? of his shots.

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Rozier’s 36% above-break shooting is good enough to keep defenses honest, but its his speed and defensive energy that are more important.

Up next:

Tue, Nov 14th @ BKN
Thu, Nov 16th vs GS (TNT)
Sat, Nov 18th @ ATL

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Thanks for reading. Hooray for the NBA.

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Click the green link with my name to follow Jonah Hall on Medium. @darkoindex on Twitter.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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