A box score is known to never tell the full story, but the statistical summary of Friday night’s Celtics-Mavericks game does a pretty convincing job.
Jayson Tatum was more aggressive — and hoisted a season-high 21 shots. Jaylen Brown capitalized on the opportunity to return to the starting lineup — and scored 21 points on 60 percent shooting. Al Horford was his usual reliable self — and posted a near triple-double with eight rebounds, eight assists, and 10 points. Gordon Hayward followed up his 35-point night with another promising outing — and nabbed his first double-double as a member of the Celtics. Brad Wanamaker stepped up at backup point guard — and logged a season-high 22 minutes.
There was no shortage of impressive numbers in Boston’s 114-93 win over Dallas. Without Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, Robert Williams, and Aron Baynes, the team flexed what has been lauded as one of its greatest strengths: depth.
“We have so many talented guys in this locker room,” Tatum said after the game. “When guys are out, guys step up to the plate. They’re more than capable of playing those big minutes. You just want to get the opportunity.”
Here’s what we learned from the Celtics’ second straight victory:
It was another game that showed the promise of a fully adjusted Gordon Hayward.
Though he fell two shy of his first career triple-double, Hayward’s eight assists matched his season-high. He added 16 points and 11 boards to round out back-to-back nights of valuable production off the bench.
“It’s good to see him getting back to his groove and looking like his old self and just being more consistent,” Tatum said.
Hayward noted he’s “not quite” there yet, in regard to returning to his All-Star form, but he said the most recent pair of outings builds his confidence moving forward. Although he reiterated he’s still looking to be aggressive by attacking the basket and getting to the line more — his free-throw attempts per game are down from 5.9 in 2016-17 to 2.3 — the continued facilitating is certainly another way he can contribute.
Hayward’s assist ratio, the number of assists a player averages per 100 possessions used, is a career-high 23.7, up from 14.7 in 2016-17. His assist to turnover ratio is also a career high at 2.7. The 28-year-old has been able to help execute plays for his teammates, as he works to gradually create more and more of his own offense.
“There’s a balance of playmaking for myself and playmaking for others,” Hayward said. “It’s a little bit of a different role, but I’ve always loved playmaking for others more than for myself.”
Ball movement is a point of emphasis.
One stat coach Brad Stevens has his eye on is assists per field goals made, for the team’s mark last season was the lowest it’s been since his first year at the helm.
Through 38 games this season, things are off to a propitious start: The Celtics are averaging both their highest number of assists (25.9) and field goals made (41.3) per game under Stevens.
“Even when we were struggling at the beginning, we had some high-assist games,” Stevens said. “But when we shoot those really tough ones that are not potentially assisted, that’s when we get in trouble, when we string a bunch of those together.”
Boston’s ball movement has been particularly effective of late. Against the Mavericks, the team made 341 passes, up from its season average of 296.4, and notched a season-high 35 assists. Over their last nine games, the Celtics lead the league in points per game created through their assists (71.7) and rank fourth in potential assists (50.6), which are passes where the teammate shoots within one dribble of receiving the ball.
When players are moving the ball, the team is more likely to generate good looks and be successful. Additionally, increased ball movement is often a reflection of greater chemistry and trust. In November, their worst month record-wise, the Celtics ranked 10th in the league in assist points created (57.9) and 12th in potential assists (44.1). They also averaged just 281.6 passes per game.
The offense is coming together, but defense is just as, if not more, important.
Even when the Celtics are cooking on offense, they cannot disregard their play on the other end of the floor.
“That’s what we hang our hat on the last two games,” said Brown, who is shooting 65 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from behind the arc over his last four games. “We really established ourselves on the defensive end of the ball, which made everything else easy. When everybody does their job, everybody’s on the same page — offensively, our system is good enough to put people in the right spots to score the ball, but we got to get stops.”
The Celtics seemed engaged defensively from the tip Friday, forcing six turnovers, including five steals, in the first quarter alone. Brown said the team’s identity has been on the defensive end since he was drafted in 2016.
“That’s what it should always be,” he said. “Celtics basketball, we play harder than other teams, so we got to continue and get back to that and maintain that up until we raise a banner.”
The respect is real.
The sellout TD Garden crowd really, really wanted — like, really, really wanted — Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki to score.
Despite their buoyant “Dirk! Dirk! Dirk!” and “Let’s go Dirk” chants, the 18,624 fans in attendance couldn’t will Nowitzki to make a basket. Nowitzki, who logged a season-high 16 minutes, had 10 opportunities to knock down a bucket but didn’t connect on any of his attempts.
Boston REALLY wanted Dirk to have this last shot. pic.twitter.com/WfhjvVYsk2
— ESPN (@espn) January 5, 2019
“I’ve rooted for the opponent to score two times in my life: Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki,” Stevens said. “I was sitting over there just like everyone else in the building, saying, ‘Go in. Go in.’”
Nowitzki attributed his 0-for-10 game to having “just one of those nights,” but, in spite of his poor shooting, he said he’ll never forget the reception, which began with an ovation when he first checked into the game. In the midst of his 21st, and potentially final, NBA season, the 40-year-old called the crowd’s cheers “super sweet” and “super emotional.”
“It’s sweet when, not only your home fans but, fans on the road appreciate what you have done in the last two decades,” Nowitzki said. “I appreciate the fans of Boston and, unfortunately, I was really disappointed I couldn’t even make one.”
After the final buzzer, several Celtics shook Nowitzki’s hand on the court.
“Dirk has done so much for the game of basketball,” Hayward said. “Happy to see him still out there. He’s such a great player.”
“It’s going to be a sad day when Dirk steps away from the game,” added Brown. “I got to spend some time with him in South Africa in Johannesburg. Just as he is a great basketball player, he’s a great person. He’s super cool, low-key, humble, and always joking around. When he finally steps away from this game — he gave so much to it — it’s going to be truly an honor. It’s just super cool to just be in his presence and watch him out there. He’s a true legend.”