The Boston Celtics are about to embark on their postseason journey. Expectations are low, projections are random, and the team finds itself in a house money situation where the results won’t be defining, but are still important.
Championships aspirations have all but evaporated, but the journey isn’t just a lost cause for Boston. In fact, this postseason is important because of the potential to raise an already high ceiling for next year’s team. How?
The performance of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The duo are the only two starters outside of Al Horford who have survived from opening night and their play this year has been surprising to many. The plan going into this season was to turn the two into traditional 3 and D wings who would get most of their offense from the looks created by Irving and Hayward. When the two stars went down, Brown and Tatum were given more of an offensive load and have been fantastic ever since. They boast a combined per36 of 40.1ppg, 10.2rpg, 4.8apg on 49.3/48.7/78.5 splits since March. If Boston is going to have any success in the postseason, they will need the kids to take their games to another level.
Let’s start by looking at how they performed against the Bucks.
Getting to the basket
In their last meeting against the Bucks, Brown and Tatum led their team in scoring with 24 and 20 respectively. The points were great and how they were scored provided a blueprint for how the C’s should go about getting the young wings involved.
The Bucks lead the league in FGA given up within 5ft or less and a big part of that is their inability to handle penetration. In theory, Bucks defenders like Khris Middleton, Tony Snell, and Sterling Brown should be formidable matchups for the young wing tandem, but the Boston neutralized Milwaukee’s length by running Brown and Tatum off of dribble-handoffs (DHOs) and off-ball screens that allowed them to get the basketball going toward the rim.
Since Irving was injured, Brown and Tatum have been the top two Celtics outside of Greg Monroe to take shots within five feet of the rim. The two wings are stylistically different. Tatum glides to the hoop with smoothness. Brown powers to the rim with an electric first-step. The returns are great on both side of the spectrum. Brown is shooting 57.8% and Tatum is shooting 64.1% these near-basket looks.
The tandem is also respectively second and third in free throw attempts for the Celtics and are both in the top 30 of all forwards who play 28 or more minutes in FTA’s. They combine for roughly 8.8 FTA per 36 during this stretch and in the one game against the Bucks they went for 15 FTA. The blueprint is clear: attack, attack, and attack some more.
The second part of the duo’s offensive gamelan will be continue shooting from long-range at a high-clip. Tatum specifically was great at this using the Bucks unwillingness to switch off screens into generating open looks from three (eight attempts in last matchup).
Brown will have his opportunities too, and the pair must confidently take these shots when they’re open. A steady balance of aggressive assaults on the rim with a willingness to shoot from range not only creates a high-percentage shot profile—it forces the defense to overcommit which creates even higher quality looks for players on the court.
Brown and Tatum only combined for 36.3% from beyond the arc in that matchup, however all but one look was classified either open or wide open via NBA stats, and over half of the attempts (6) came in catch and shoot situations. That doesn’t mean that the duo is automatically going to shoot better, but it does suggest that they can get good looks and have a season’s worth of evidence to suggest they can capitalize on these looks more times than not.
The playoffs are where players make names for themselves and there’s no doubt that the Celtics wish they had Irving, Hayward, and Smart available. What they do have however, is the next most interesting thing: promising youth. It’s rare to get your prized lottery picks this type of experience. Brown will continue to grow into a leadership role in his second postseason appearance, and Tatum will get a feel for being a go-to look with the pressure doubled. If they show that they’re ready for this moment it could potentially change everything about the Celtics ceiling.
Two long wings who are scoring an efficient 20ppg alongside one of the most versatile bigs in the playoffs with the best defense in the league could be a recipe to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals when Smart returns. However, inconsistent performances by the young stars could doom Boston to a first-round exit. It’ll be high-level roulette with the Celtics on a night-to-night basis based on the play of Brown and Tatum, but in a year where the finals seem unlikely, their development is the most important theme for the postseason.