Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been at the heart of the Celtics’ success for roughly two years now. The young pair nearly pushed Boston to the NBA Finals in 2018, and the first four seeding games in the Walt Disney World bubble are further proof that their collective ceiling is continuing to rise.
Tatum and Brown carried the Celtics over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, combining for 64 points on 52.5 percent shooting, including a ridiculous 11-of-16 clip from deep. Tatum’s 21-point first half was the story of the game’s opening 24 minutes, while Brown’s 16-point fourth quarter was the key to Boston holding off Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers. Unlike many young players, Tatum and Brown have learned to impact the game in ways beyond scoring, something that’s mutually beneficial to their success.
When Portland took away Tatum’s ability to score off the dribble with ease in Sunday’s second half, the 22-year-old turned to his rising passing ability. He finished with a career-high eight assists, with five of those coming on Brown makes in the fourth quarter. He finished the quarter 6-for-6 from the floor.
Portland did everything they could to prevent further damage from Tatum in the second half, and that included waves of help defense being thrown his way. A major development in his game has been patience, especially when multiple defenders come his way. The play above is a prime example.
Tatum draws his primary defender, CJ McCollum, Zach Collins and even Hassan Whiteside down to the baseline, opening up the rest of the floor. Tatum sees Gary Trent Jr. rotate to help Collins, leaving Brown open on the perimeter. He waits for the collapse and hits Brown with a great cross-court pass for the 3-pointer to tie the game.
Here, Tatum grabs the rebound and immediately pushes the floor. Brown has the same idea, immediately streaking to look for the outlet pass following Lillard’s miss. Tatum hits him with a bounce pass for the easy fast break dunk. That kind of court vision has been another key improvement to Tatum’s game this season.
Even a play as simple as this one goes a long way. Tatum, working as the primary ball handler, pushes the tempo and makes a smart read right off the bat. Trent Jr. sticks to Gordon Hayward in the corner, leaving Brown wide open. Tatum sees this develop and hits Brown before even taking a dribble after crossing halfcourt. Brown, once again, buries the 3.
This is the play that sticks out above the rest. Holding a three-point lead, Tatum manages to burn some clock while keeping Lillard at bay. He uses a spin move to maneuver around Lillard and drive, drawing both Jusuf Nurkic and Carmelo Anthony. Away from the ball, Brown slid down to the corner, bringing Anthony with him, allowing Tatum to move deeper toward the paint. Once he draws Nurkic and Anthony, he quickly kicks to Brown, who has a small opening. Thanks to a great read from Tatum, Brown gets the ball at the right time and is able to knock down the dagger late in the fourth quarter.
Tatum is one of the best shot creators in the NBA, but now he’s finding ways to create open looks for his teammates. Rounding out his game like that is what takes a player from star to superstar, and he’s well on his way. It certainly helps when one of his teammates is Brown, who uses his basketball IQ to wisely choose his off-ball positioning. That off-ball movement creates easier looks, resulting in more buckets — a rather simple but effective equation. When they’re on the floor together, their skill sets go hand-in-hand. Tatum draws the most attention, creating more space for Brown off the ball. That works to the Celtics’ advantage, while causing some tough decisions for opposing defenses.
A healthy Kemba Walker just means another shot creator and facilitator to this group that already is thriving offensively. That addition won’t hurt the rhythm Tatum and Brown have found of late. If anything, it’ll improve it thanks to another offensive weapon for opponents to focus on, and Tuesday’s loss to the Miami Heat provided a few glimpses of just that.
Here, Walker uses his quickness off the dribble to get to the hoop, causing multiple defenders to collapse on the ball-handler. As soon as Walker put his head down to move into the paint, Brown casually slid back-door, opening himself up for a drop-off at the end of the drive. Walker finds Brown for the easy bucket thanks to the smart off-ball movement. It’s little things like this that make a world of difference when Tatum, Walker and Brown on are the court together.
Tatum and Brown combined for 41 points in Boston’s loss to Miami, while Walker posted 15 points and four assists as his minutes restriction increased to 27 minutes.
Walker sat out Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets due to a scheduled recovery day. He won’t play back-to-backs until the team’s medical staff feels he’s fully ready to do so. Brown and Tatum continued their trend in the right direction against Brooklyn, even with Walker on the shelf.
Tatum found himself on the bench in Wednesday’s first quarter with two early fouls, but Brown’s off-ball movement didn’t stop.
Some players coast off the ball, but Brown uses sharp, decisive movements to catch defenders off guard. It works to perfection along the perimeter here as he catches Rodions Kurucs on his heels. Brown cuts back to the top of the key, knowing Daniel Theis will be there to help him create some separation, and knocks down the triple.
Despite the early foul trouble, Tatum made a major impact on the Celtics’ blowout win over Brooklyn. His shot creation was on display as he posted 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting in just 18 minutes. Brown was productive and efficient as well, scoring 21 points on a 7-of-13 clip.
These trends from the Celtics’ two young stars are encouraging and ideally a sign of their ceilings continuing to rise together as they move forward. Time will tell what it means for Boston’s results in the bubble.