The Celtics toyed with and then obliterated the Toronto Raptors, 117-94, on Saturday night at TD Garden, looking like the more energetic and passionate team, despite having played the night before. The energy is likely a byproduct of their depth, because the responsibility for scoring, rebounding, and executing is more balanced than before.
So it’s no surprise coach Joe Mazzulla is allowing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to play deep into the fourth quarter of a game that had already been decided because they like to put up numbers, and want to put up numbers.
Numbers are what motivates many NBA players. They look at the stat sheets at halftime. They know how far they are from a triple double or another milestone. Yet, Mazzulla’s job is to convince his standout players that screening, spacing, and making the extra pass is just as attractive as scoring.
“I just think it’s a constant conversation,” Mazzulla said. “I don’t know that it’s ever going to be perfect. But you have to have those conversations. What we have to do as a staff and as an organization is point out what success looks like for the individuals on our team when it comes to winning. There’s a worldly success toward points and assists, but we have to be able to point out all areas that other people don’t notice that lead to winning.
“So we have to be really intentional about what success looks like. And it’s going to look different every night.”
Mazzulla pointed out some examples. Payton Pritchard’s crash rate (rebounding) for point guards. Tatum had 15 potential assists (a pass that leads to a shot, foul, or turnover from the recipient). Brown and Porzingis have developed a strong passing chemistry. Porzingis attempted four shots Friday against Brooklyn, but Mazzulla said his first-half screening created easy scoring opportunity for teammates.
That’s a tough sell, but for a team seeking a championship, where players have put up numbers and made All-NBA teams without claiming the ultimate crown, it’s worth Mazzulla’s consistent effort to convince Tatum, Brown, and others that the little things are equally as important.
Tatum isn’t going to wow folks over dinner talking about his potential assists. Mazzulla, on the other hand, is consumed with those elements of the game beyond the stat sheet. He’s trying to bring his guys at least halfway to his kingdom.
“You have to do it to win,” Mazzulla said. “You don’t really have a choice. We all say we want to win but when it comes down to it we have to be able to do those things and credit to our guys because they have the open-mindedness and the trust in each other.”
Saturday night’s win was a prime example of the Celtics’ balance. Brown, Tatum, and Porzingis had their moments, but they battered the Raptors with teamwork. Tatum scored 27 points, below his season average, in 34 minutes but was a plus-42, meaning his mere presence makes the Celtics nearly unbeatable on many nights.
With the additions of Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, and the improvement of Derrick White, Tatum and Brown don’t need to score and sometimes even play as much as previous years. The Celtics were stellar in their first five games, winning even without bench production.
The reserves became a concern but over the past four games, they have taken more pressure off the starters. Sam Hauser came off the bench and hit four 3-pointers against the Raptors, Al Horford has embraced his bench role and remains a steady contributor, and the biggest development is Pritchard, who is beginning to warm up after a putrid first two weeks.
So there are going to be nights like this where Tatum and Brown get some rest or play deep into games because they want to contribute more and develop a consistent rhythm. Rest may be their best friends at this point because both, especially Tatum, have shown signs of fatigue deep into playoff runs.
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens sought to change that narrative in the offseason, acquiring the aforementioned Porzingis and Holiday but also attempting to solidify the bench with more capable players. Mazzulla said a challenge so far is trying to carve bench roles besides Horford, Pritchard, and Hauser. And the Celtics’ top eight have been so efficient of late, Tatum and Brown aren’t wearing themselves thin trying to win November games.
The Raptors, a physical, athletic bunch, were supposed to be a challenge, especially with Boston coming off beating Brooklyn less than 24 hours before. While Toronto put up a fight for about a quarter and a half, the Raptors soon began chucking threes, missing twos, and just looking beleaguered for the entire second half.
The Celtics were considerably better than their opponents, even on a night when the 3-pointer wasn’t exactly splashing. But they’re good enough to beat most teams when they’re running on five or six of eight cylinders.
Tatum scored a chill 27 points on 18 shots, doing a chunk of his damage when the Celtics were leading by double digits. Although his shooting percentages are up from last season, his shots are down. He said he understands that less usage is a byproduct of more depth.
“Nah, we’re winning,” Tatum said on whether Mazzulla’s sales pitch is difficult. “We have a really, really good team and I understand that we got four or five guys that average double figures. Each night can be a little bit different and that’s all right. It’s a long season. We play a lot of games.
“As long as we’re winning, that’s all that matters.”