MILWAUKEE — The night went well for the Celtics, not only because they were energized with new acquisitions after the trade deadline, but they also played the game the right way from the start, especially Jayson Tatum.
One of the reasons Tatum has been slumping of late is because he’s settled for 3-pointers early in games. He’s picked up the habit of dribbling around the perimeter, finding a spot and then a step-back for a 26-footer.
It looks beautiful when it goes in. But it’s simply another empty possession when it doesn’t.
On Friday at Fiserv Forum, Tatum attacked the rim, used his length to create space on shorter jumpers and got going in the paint, which then opened up his perimeter game. His 34 points were crucial in the Celtics picking up their best win of the season, a 122-114 decision over the Bucks.
It snapped the Bucks’ eight-game winning streak and offered more encouragement that the Celtics have the capability to beat the league’s elite. It was the first time since opening night the Celtics have beaten the Bucks, Nets, or 76ers, although they are unlikely to catch the top three in the final six weeks of the season.
That doesn’t mean they can’t make a run for home-court advantage and become the team they have been pining to be since opening night. Against the Bucks, the Celtics resembled that team. They countered every Bucks run with one of their own. They hit big shots and played well enough on defense to limit two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to 16 points.
Newly acquired Evan Fournier wasn’t even in the building. He’s in Boston taking physicals, but the Celtics played with a focus and peace of mind not seen in weeks. Tatum was the catalyst, scoring 15 first-half points on just three 3-point attempts.
Tatum, like some of his teammates, have been prone to fall in love with the long ball. And missing threes in the early going takes away from Tatum’s true offensive impact. Missed threes lead to slow starts and low point totals for a team that needs his scoring.
“I just think the most important thing for him is to have an aggressive mind-set,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And I do think that sometimes he needs to be ready to catch and shoot instead of catch, floor it and then find a shot that may be more difficult than the one he passed up. When he turns the corner and attacks quickly, and then plays off that catch-and-shoot like that, he just scores an easier 34.”
Tatum struggled in February recovering from the effects of COVID-19, shooting less than 40 percent from the field. He has bounced back in March but entered Friday 11 for his last 32 from the 3-point line and in losses to Cleveland and Milwaukee, he started painfully slow, only to pick up his production in the second half.
That’s good enough to put up impressive point totals on some nights but it’s not good enough for consistent victories against high-level competition. A totally engaged and efficient Tatum relieves so much pressure from his teammates and allows them to get open shots.
“I just tried to be more aggressive,” Tatum said. “And attacking the rim a little bit more and that opened up the game for me a little bit.”
Jaylen Brown was able to get his share of open threes and scored 18 and Marcus Smart had one of those “jumper is going down” nights and hit a season-high seven 3-pointers. But this was more than just shots going down; it was Tatum’s early production that sparked the offense.
And this victory wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the stellar night from Robert Williams, making his first start since his mentor Daniel Theis was traded to the Chicago Bulls. Williams scored 7 points, with 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocked shots and 2 steals.
With Williams being a menace on defense and Tatum showing his array of skills on offense, the Celtics are a difficult team to beat. But this needs to happen more often.
And it helps when players know their offensive roles. The presence of Fournier as another shooter on the floor should open up more opportunities for Tatum and Brown.
“Certain shots, what’s good for somebody may not be great for somebody else,” Tatum said. “As professionals on a team, we understand that. It’s something we’re all looking toward collectively. There’s going to be times, late in the shot clock with the game on the line, unless you’re in a really great rhythm, you’re going to need those midrange shots. We talked about it, a good shot for a couple of us may not be the best shot for somebody else. That’s just knowing the game, knowing the personnel on the floor to get the best shot on that possession for our team.”
Tatum was right, this is just one game. But it served as a strong indication of how different the Celtics are when they are all engaged, hitting shots and moving the ball. The Celtics had 27 assists on their 43 made baskets with Tatum picking up seven himself.
The next task is more consistency, and an equally efficient performance Saturday in Oklahoma City.