Over the first 20 games of this season the Celtics have constructed one of the most dominant offenses in NBA history. Nothing has slowed it down.
Poor shooting nights have rarely stayed that way. Top-10 defenses have often appeared lost. The randomness of it all, the constant movement that is based on across-the-board trust, has left opponents no easy answers.
But on Sunday night, the fulcrum was removed. MVP candidate Jayson Tatum (left ankle soreness) watched this game against the Wizards from the bench while wearing street clothes. It was his first game off since last April.
So maybe the offense would be tested. Maybe things would look unsettled and jumbled. Maybe the Celtics would have trouble making up for the 30 points per game that were suddenly missing.
Then the game began, and it became clear the personnel adjustments would not matter. Passes and ball movement were still crisp. The attack was still direct and concise. The 3-pointers still poured through the net as if they were being stored for winter.
And the final result, a 130-121 win that was more lopsided than that score indicates, was businesslike.
Yes, the Celtics will always be better when Tatum is with them, but they showed that they can continue to roar when he is not.
“It’s fun out there playing,” guard Derrick White said. “Everybody is just looking for each other and making the right play, and we’ve got a lot of guys that can shoot, drive, pass and create. So it’s fun out there.”
The Celtics made 55 percent of their shots, 47.1 percent of their 3-pointers, and all 26 of their free throws. Jaylen Brown had 36 points to lead Boston, and seven players scored 12 points or more.
This team is now scoring 119.9 points per 100 possessions, which would be the highest offensive rating in NBA history if the season ended now. There are 62 games remaining, of course. But 20 games are enough of a sample size to make opponents tremble a bit.
Boston has won 12 of its last 13 games and owns the NBA’s best record (16-4). It has done all of this without one of its top players, center Robert Williams, who could return within the next two weeks following September knee surgery.
“I like the spot that we’re in,” Brown said. “Playing great basketball. We’re empowering our guys to come in and be aggressive and they feel comfortable in their roles. We’re shooting the [expletive] out of the ball, and we play the game the right way. So not too much to ask when you look like that. It looks like Celtics basketball to me.”
Bradley Beal had 30 points for the Wizards, who were without forwards Kyle Kuzma (back) and Rui Hachimura (ankle).
The Celtics trailed, 16-14, midway through the first quarter before they took the lead for good. They led by as many as 17 points in the second quarter and 26 in the third before coach Joe Mazzulla went deep into his bench with the game seemingly in hand and a Monday night matchup against the Hornets looming.
It was a slight departure from his approach during other blowouts, when he has left his starters in even when there is clearly not enough time for an opponent to erase a deficit. The first-year interim coach said last week he is still learning how to react to massive leads, but it’s a good problem to have.
Washington clawed back within 119-107, forcing Mazzulla to put Brown, Marcus Smart, and Al Horford back in before things got uncomfortable. The trio pushed back with just enough force.
“I don’t think there’s ever a right answer in any part of the game,” Mazzulla said. “I thought we just adapted to what Washington was doing, and it just looked like they were trying to put the pressure on us and go for the win. We just try to do the same.”
The Celtics received another important lift from their bench, with Malcolm Brogdon (17 points), Sam Hauser (14), and Luke Kornet (12) combining to go 13 for 23 from the field and 6 of 10 from the 3-point line.
Brogdon said the reserves have become a real asset, and he has even noticed opponents starting to adjust their substitution patterns by leaving starters in for longer against Boston’s capable backups.
“I think they’re taking our bench super serious,” Brogdon said. “We’re as effective as a lot of first units in the league as far as our efficiency on both ends. So they’re taking us serious, they’re scouting us hard — more than I think they do on most second teams. And we’ve got to keep playing at the level we’re playing at.”