Celtics

Jayson Tatum’s electric 43-point performance leads short-handed Celtics over Pistons: 5 takeaways

Plus: Marcus Smart continues to shine as a distributor and more.

Celtics vs. Hawks predicitons
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum is defended by Pistons center Isaiah Stewart. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

The short-handed Celtics kept rolling on Saturday, claiming their sixth straight game with a 117-108 victory over the Pistons.

Here’s what happened.

The Big Picture

Both the Celtics and Pistons were on the second night of a back-to-back, and both teams were short-handed. The Celtics announced before the game that Al Horford (back) and Jaylen Brown (knee) would join Malcolm Brogdon (hamstring) on the injured list, along with Robert Williams. The Pistons, meanwhile, were without star guard Cade Cunningham.

As a result, both teams looked a little rocky in the first quarter. The Pistons went up by as many as six, but the Celtics fought back and took a 30-29 lead after the first frame. The Pistons refused to go away, however, and rallied to win the second quarter and held a two-point advantage going into the break.

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In the third, however, Jayson Tatum and the Celtics exploded. The Celtics won the period by 10 behind 15 points from Tatum and a last-second 3-pointer by Grant Williams. The fourth was just a continued coronation of Tatum, who poured in 13 more en route to the win.

Player of the Game

Jayson Tatum: 43 points, 14-for-28 shooting, 7-for-15 from 3, 8-for-10 from FT, 10 rebounds, 3 assists

We danced around giving Tatum yet another Player of the Game against the Nuggets, but there’s no room to tango tonight. Tatum was brilliant, leading a short-handed Celtics team to a win over an admittedly bad Pistons team.

What It Means

The Celtics are now 10-3, just a half-game behind the Bucks at 10-2 for the best record in the Eastern Conference (and the NBA as a whole).

Takeaways

1. NBC Sports Boston play-by-play announcer Sean Grande called Tatum “the best player on the planet” twice in the closing seconds, and there’s certainly a case to be made. Tatum has scored more points than anyone in the NBA. According to Synergy Sports, Tatum is second in points generated per possession among the NBA’s highest-usage players (25 possessions or more per game, a list that includes Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, and Devin Booker). Tatum (at 1.18) trails only Warriors star Steph Curry (1.26). Per Cleaning the Glass, he assists on 18.4 percent of the Celtics’ made baskets, which puts him in the 90th percentile league-wide among forwards. His defense is otherworldly.

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Curry, Doncic, and Antetokounmpo would like a word with Grande, of course. Tatum has more help than any of those three in the early going (Doncic, for example, assists on a staggering 43.7 percent of his team’s baskets in addition to scoring 33.6 points per game).

But Tatum is the roaring super-charged engine driving the hottest team in the league at the moment. Applying the “best player on the planet” tag to the Celtics’ star is in no way absurd.

2. At one point last season, Tatum blew off Grant Williams calling for an alley-oop in transition. Asked about it postgame, Tatum chuckled and noted that if Williams has caught an alley-oop, he likely hasn’t caught many of them.

“I did not feel comfortable throwing Grant Williams an alley-oop on a fast break,” Tatum said, drawing chuckles from the assembled media, who understood Tatum’s executive decision entirely.

Fast forward to Saturday.

As if we needed more evidence Williams’ game has grown.

Williams dropped 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting. He continues to look like a keeper in the starting lineup, which will be a fascinating dynamic when Robert Williams returns.

3. Marcus Smart finished with 18 points, 10 assists, and one turnover. In his last five games, he has 48 assists and six turnovers — an absurd 8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s playing some of the best basketball of his career.

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4. Smart was also involved in one of the funnier bloopers of the game. In the first half, he and Jayson Tatum found themselves alone on a fast-break. Smart tried to throw the ball off the glass for Tatum, but Tatum fumbled the catch and couldn’t throw down the alley-oop. Smart grabbed the rebound but missed a 3-pointer.

“You’ve be on your good behavior after that one,” Smart told reporters. “It’s kind of tough, because you’ve got Jayson Tatum screaming ‘off the glass’ to you, I think anybody in my position probably would have thrown it off the glass to him. I don’t know, the ball just slipped out of his hand, it happens, but I think after that play you’ve got to keep everything simple now. We tried it, it didn’t work, and that’s what we did.

“I was mad because I almost didn’t get my 10 assists because of that play, so it almost cost me. But we learn from it. Like I said, I’ll still throw it again if Jayson or Jaylen tells me to throw it.”

An important note for Smart: The NBA does not give out assists for passes off the glass. If Smart is worried about his assists totals, he absolutely should not listen if Tatum or Brown tells him to throw it off the glass.

5. Much has been made of the Celtics’ recent strategy of letting the ball stop on the ground in the backcourt without touching it as the clock rolls — a weird little tactic that some suggested might be a way of burning time off the clock when they have a decent-sized lead.

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There’s another possibility, however. On Saturday, when the Celtics tried that strategy, Bojan Bogdanovic was the player who chased the ball out to the other side of the floor. By waiting just long enough, Smart was able to scoop the ball up and race past him the other way, jerry-rigging a fast break where one didn’t exist previously.

We will see how long the NBA lets this continue (our guess: The competition committee brings this strategy to a permanent end next offseason) or whether teams figure out better ways to implement it themselves, but for now, give Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla credit for some truly outside-the-box thinking.

The Celtics return to TD Garden to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday for their third game in four nights.

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