The Celtics’ roster is filled with dynamic offensive players capable of putting up totals that look like pinball scores. But their impact would be muted if they were forced to do it alone.
As interim coach, Joe Mazzulla has preached the importance of cohesion, trust, and spacing. He consistently uses lineups that include five players who are capable of drilling open 3-pointers, and he counts on his players to find whoever is best positioned to do that.
“The cool thing about offense, and basketball in general to me, is you have to be able to make each other better whether you have the ball or not,” Mazzulla said. “And our guys are bought into making each other better, whether they have the ball or not. I think it’s cool to watch.”
On Friday night, it was cool for just about everyone at TD Garden other than the Nuggets. Boston’s offense remained in lockstep throughout its 131-112 rout that stretched the team’s winning streak to five games.
Some performances have become expected. Jayson Tatum poured in 34 points, and Jaylen Brown made 11 of 15 shots for an efficient 25. The two have been remarkably consistent this season.
But the spread-out, sped-up attack ensures that the two stars do not get bogged down in isolation situations that lead to forced shots and frustrated teammates.
So when there was congestion around Tatum and Brown, Al Horford was ready and waiting at the arc, where he tied his career high by drilling six 3-pointers. Sixth man Malcolm Brogdon was sidelined due to hamstring tightness, so Payton Pritchard, who had appeared in just four games all season, stepped in and hit 5 of 6 shots, scored 11 points, and ripped four offensive rebounds away from exasperated Nuggets.
Mazzulla said that in addition to good shot selection, the Celtics’ randomness on offense has created problems for opponents. On most plays there are so many options, like a choose-your-own-adventure novel transpiring in real time, and it’s almost too much for a defense to consider.
“It’s a lot of ball movement,” Horford said. “Guys are really conscious of understanding what coach wants from us, what he expects, and he wants good spacing. We’re doing a good job of getting to those positions, and it’s fun to see when it comes together like that.”
The Celtics shot 55.6 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from the 3-point line. They have made more than 50 percent of their shots in half of their games this season and are averaging 119.4 points per 100 possessions. There remains a long, grueling season ahead, but no team has ever finished a year with a higher offensive rating.
“From the first day of training camp, [we’re] just trusting each other,” Tatum said, “trusting that whenever you move the ball, it’s going to come back, and that’s how we just continue to play and knock down shots.”
Last season the Celtics stormed to the NBA Finals behind their top-ranked defense. This has certainly been a shift, but the players also believe that dynamic could still be unlocked, too. The looming return of All-Defensive team center Robert Williams will certainly help, but Friday provided a good test.
Denver’s offense has not been nearly as dominant as Boston’s, but it’s still been quite powerful this season, with two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic leading the way.
The Celtics knew Jokic would score — he had 29 points — but they were more focused on making sure he did not take over the game as a distributor. And Jokic, who entered the night averaging nine assists per game, was held to just three.
The Celtics led by as many as 18 points in the second quarter before the Nuggets cut the deficit to 66-57 by halftime and pulled even closer after Jokic went to the bench with his fourth foul early in the third.
A pair of Bruce Brown free throws brought Denver within 88-87 with 2:50 left in the third, but Boston created some separation with its bench, as a Luke Kornet follow-slam was followed by a Sam Hauser 3–pointer.
With Boston leading, 99-91, early in the fourth, it put away the Nuggets with a 12-4 burst that was capped by a Horford 3-pointer.
“We want to put pressure on the rim, we want to finish at the basket,” Horford said. “At the same time, we have to have good spacing around [Tatum and Brown] in case that doesn’t happen. We play inside-out. We get those 3s. It’s just the way our lineups are. We have five shooters out there, so we’re really spreading it out.”