Finding the Flow: Celtics, Tatum and the Third Quarter Relax

Sometimes, you want something too much. You build it up in your mind and you get out of your comfort zone. You are not your ideal self. You are a scrambled and agitated version of self.

In the NBA, defense attempts to irritate, rush, confuse and scramble the offense. When an individual defender, Jimmy Butler or Marcus Smart, does these things, its easy to see the impact. When all five teammates exist on a rotating string, its more like an octopus surrounding an offense.

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The Raptors and Heat are two of the NBA’s best octopus-impersonators. Taking a page out of the Warriors Draymond-Klay-Durant defense, they are highly-switchable and long-armed.

A zone defense is thought of as a gimmick in the NBA. It’s common in high school and college hoops, but the NBA’s athletes are generally too skilled to be hampered by a zone. But as the game has moved further out, with the three-point arc spreading the game out, the zone offers an alternative, making the typical pick-and-roll actions less fluid. Instead of the offense determining what the defense needs to do, and how to react, the defense has its own plan and the offense is suddenly forced to make adjustments. It took a while to navigate the zone, but the Celtics have found ways to counteract it, and gradually, Jayson Tatum has found his flow, just in time. Tatum’s improved range has opened up his penetration…and his ability to get to the line. One of the more dominant young players in the NBA, Tatum has been forced to initiate against the octopus.

Former coach and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy has continually mentioned the importance of finding the middle of the zone, and the receiver of that pass facing the basket, posing a scoring threat before passing out. An offensive player cuts to the middle and as the defense converges, faces the basket then quickly finds an outlet if the mid-range jumper isn’t available. The Heat have been deploying a zone in which their forwards (Butler, Iguodala, Derrick Jones Jr.) sit at the top — long arms extending, ready to swarm.

Celtics center Daniel Theis had his best game of the series on both ends of the court. Theis set flare screens and then found the middle of the zone and defended the pick-and-roll and the rim beautifully.

Marcus Smart found the middle of the zone and made heady passes. As is often the case, the Celtics are nearly unbeatable when Smart is at his best. Smart’s defensive genius usually enables transition offense. Smart’s improved passing leads to easier buckets. Miami had tempted Marcus with open 3s in the previous few games and Smart obliged, missing many of those open 3s. Instead, the offense was attacking, rather than hesitating. All five starters found their rhythm and flow in that dominant third quarter.

Miami had a 15–5 lead early, with the Celtics finding open looks from 3 but missing everything early. Too tight…wanting it too much. At the half, the Celtics trailed 58–51, but nothing was easy. Other than Enes Kanter’s brief flurry inside, it seemed like every possession was played in mud.

Here are the numbers from the quarter (41–25, Celtics) that saved Boston’s season, including a 20–3 run that flipped the game:

  • Jayson Tatum: 17 points, including a whopping 7 of 8 from the line, 2 of 3 from deep, and 2 of 3 from 2-point range. 17 points on 6 shots. Zero turnovers.
  • Marcus Smart: 3 points, 4 assists, 2 steals, 2 rebounds.
  • Kemba Walker: 7 points, 3 assists, zero turnovers.
  • Jaylen Brown: 6 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal.
  • Daniel Theis: 6 points, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks.

The Celtics kept pushing and finished the game with a nice cushion. There were no Herro-ics. No fourth quarter deflation.

It wasn’t a full 48 minutes of perfection, it was the last 41 minutes. Down 17–5 with five minutes left in the first, the relaxed Celtics showed up…and dominated, winning the last 41 minutes: 116–91.

The Octopus might be dead.

Game 6 is Sunday night at 7:30 ET on ESPN.

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

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