When Gordon Hayward decided that he would sign with the Hornets this offseason, it certainly was not great news for the Celtics, but it also was not a disaster. The concern level was mitigated by the fact that they still had one of the league’s most dangerous trios, putting them in position to weather such a substantial departure without taking a step backward.
Kemba Walker has played in four All-Star Games, Jayson Tatum has played in one, and Jaylen Brown appears ready to begin surging toward his first. All three players have unique skill sets, and last year they showed that they are capable of deploying them as a group.
In 40 total games together, Brown, Walker, and Tatum outscored opponents by 9 points per 100 possessions when they were all on the court at once, and the Celtics went 27-13. It was Walker’s first season in Boston, and Tatum and Brown were still ascending, so there was reason to believe in growth.
But the start of this season was complicated. Walker missed the first 11 games as he completed a knee-strengthening program and has remained on a minutes restriction since he returned. And once he came back, Tatum missed five games after testing positive for COVID-19.
“It’s been an interesting season,” Brown said. “We’ve had guys out, guys hurt. Now guys are back, and we’re still just trying to put everything together.”
Tatum, Brown, and Walker took the court together for the first time this season when the Celtics faced the Spurs Wednesday night, and it was somewhat bumpy at times, though unsurprisingly so.
“I think just time and experience,” Brown said. “I think this was the first game of the season with us three on the floor together, and it showed, I felt like.
“So I think it will get better in time, but we’ve got to do a better job of finding each other’s spots and allowing each other to have space. And the timing of it needs to flow a little better.
“But this is the first one. You don’t want to overreact or anything, but we can for sure get better.”
Walker clearly is still shedding some rust after a lengthy absence that also kept him out of training camp. The Celtics have a minus-6.6 net rating with him on the court, but there were times Wednesday when Brown and Tatum appeared to cede to him in big spots, none bigger than when he prepared for an isolation drive and was stripped by Dejounte Murray in the final minute, with Boston trailing by 2 points.
Tatum is still finding his way, too, after battling COVID-19. He had symptoms of the virus for about 24 hours earlier this month, and the sedentary days that followed may have disrupted his rhythm most of all.
Brown has been one of the best players in the NBA this season, but over his career, his best moments have come when it is clear he is a primary option. Now, he has proven he is just as capable of filling that role even when the Celtics are at full strength, so it could take time for the three to figure out how this all works.
“[We just need] to play together,” Tatum said. “It’s our first day playing together, and Kemba is still on a minutes restriction and it’s my second game back after being out 16, 17 days.
“Just being able to practice
with each other now that we’re all healthy, and just timing. The more time we get to be out on the court together, the better we will look.”
During their 16 minutes and 30 seconds on the court as a group Wednesday, the Celtics committed four turnovers and allowed the Spurs to shoot 67.9 percent from the field. The Celtics did pour in 46 points over this stretch, so it was hardly grisly, but Brown and Tatum acknowledged that the cohesion will be a work in progress.
Coach Brad Stevens said that Walker will remain on a minutes restriction in the coming weeks, and until he is playing his normal stretches and at his usual high level, there may be a focus on keeping either Tatum or Brown on the floor at all times. They both started the fourth quarter Wednesday on the bench, and the Spurs quickly reclaimed the lead with a small run.
“We know what we need to do,” Tatum said, “especially the core group of guys that play a big chunk of the minutes. We’ve played together, we’ve been here for enough time that we know what we need to do.
“Yeah, we’re going to figure it out.”