NEW ORLEANS — The Celtics are going to stick with their double-big lineup, Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson, because they are learning how to play together and their on-court numbers are improving.
Friday against Atlanta, the duo combined for 31 points on 15-for-18 shooting, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 blocked shots in the 121-109 win over the Hawks.
The key, Thompson said, is getting the big men involved offensively early, which opens up the floor for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker.
“With Kemba, JT and JB, the amount of attention they draw [will help us greatly],” Thompson said. “JB in the last two games, he’s taking that next step as far as finding the bigs on the roll or the late lob. I think for a guy like him that’s so athletic and gets downhill, he’s gonna draw attention, especially with those bigs, that we’re gonna be open and find the right gap in space and it’s up to [the defense] to make that play.”
Thompson had 14 points and 9 rebounds in Sunday’s debacle in New Orleans. In 12 February games, Thompson is averaging 9.8 points on 62.8 percent shooting, compared to 4.4 and 39.6 in January. The Celtics appear to be a more effective team when Thompson is more of an offensive option.
“I’ve played with great players and they know if you get the bigs involved early, the big that’s guarding the [center], they have to make a decision because they know we’ve been scoring and most bigs, if you ask them, they hate when their man scores,” Thompson said. “When we score early, going into the second half, guards will have layups and floaters and they’ll get their points.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens was heavily criticized for starting the season with Theis and Thompson together because it limited the offense and, defensively, didn’t have the expected impact. The Celtics’ starting lineup Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans — Walker, Brown, Tatum, Thompson and Theis — entered as a plus-1 on the floor together, which is a considerable improvement from the first month.
“Me and DT, we’re furthering our connection,” Thompson said. “I think we do a good job playing off each other. We know what our strengths are. We can help each other be great out there. It’s 90s, big man basketball. We’re both very intelligent basketball players and know how to read the floor, share the ball, and keep the ball moving. Sometimes when teams get four guards and one big, the ball gets stagnant. It’s a lot of popping [out for shots] and not enough guys that are rolling to the seams of the free throw line.”
Thompson, with Atlanta bigs Clint Capela and John Collins aggressive in defending, had 7 points in the first quarter on Friday.
“Coach emphasized when you attack the rim, look for the bigs, whether it’s the lob or the dump down pass, because Capela and John Collins are always going to try to step up and block shots,” he said.
Brutal honesty is Thompson’s reputation, and the 2016 NBA champion with Cleveland promises to be more expressive with his teammates in being complimentary and critical.
“Everyone knows I care about winning; winning trumps everything to me,” he said. “If I see something I know will help our team, I’m not going to be shy and not speak up because my knowledge and my leadership is what this team needs. And especially me having the experience. I’ve been to the Promised Land, so I know what it takes to get there.
“Of course, we’ve got a long way ahead of us. We know what we want. We know what we’re capable of and I’ve been there. So it would be a disservice if I kept my mouth shut and didn’t keep up.”
One of things he was unhappy about Friday is the Celtics allowing a 27-point third-quarter lead to be whittled to 8, forcing the starters to return to secure the win. Sunday’s double-down on that, going from 24 up in the third quarter to a 5-point overtime loss, certainly sparked a similar emotion.
“We’re up by 20, 22 points. We’ve got to close it out,” he said before Sunday’s collapse. “Those last six minutes are supposed to be dedicated to Tremont Waters, Aaron Nesmith, Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards. It’s all bad and it’s selfish on our part that the first and second units, we didn’t stomp on the necks because those guys deserve to get some minutes.”
Marcus Smart not close, but closer
Marcus Smart, out since Jan. 30 with a left calf strain, made the trip to New Orleans, a sign that he is making progress in his return. Smart said on Feb. 12 that he was running at “30 or 40 percent” speed even though the team projected he would miss a maximum of three weeks. Stevens would not speculate on a return date. Smart is uncertain for a possible Monday practice, but the fact he’s with his teammates and able to work out with coaches is a positive sign . . . Stevens said the club is monitoring center Robert Williams’ minutes so he can persevere through a long season. Williams has been riddled with nagging injuries throughout his two-plus year career, include hip edema that caused him to miss two months last season. He missed two games with hip issues earlier this month . . . The Celtics got a break when strongman New Orleans center Steven Adams, who has given them issues in the past, was unable to play because of an ankle injury. Former Charlotte center Willy Hernangomez started in his place.