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Sunday basketball notes

With more scoring options, versatility is key to the Celtics’ success this season

Jaylen Brown's role as the Celtics' unquestioned second scoring option has changed this season.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

The goal is versatility, for every player to help the team win in every way. But such a goal is a challenge. The Celtics are a team with elite scorers. Reminding those scorers that rebounding or assists, or even a steal or defensive stop, is just as important is a process.

Early results are encouraging. After a rough outing in Monday’s overtime loss to the Hornets, Jaylen Brown responded with eight assists in Wednesday’s impressive wire-to-wire victory over the Bucks. Brown loves to score, but with the Celtics’ increased depth following the acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis, his scoring isn’t always necessary.

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The transition from a championship-caliber team to a championship team requires sacrifice, potentially meaning fewer shot attempts or a game in which a scorer will have to make his impact on defense.

“I think it’s our job as a team to know what success looks like for us,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We’re going to [stress] that all year. We have a lot of great talent and a lot of great players and I tell the guys all the time we need Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen to be great and have greatness and do those things because that’s what we have in this league and that’s what we rely on.

“At the same time it’s going to look different every night. Sometimes having a good individual defensive game or having a high-rebound game is what is needed. It’s our job as a staff and as a team to highlight that stuff because it’s just as important, so just understanding that each guy’s value is more than scoring and the more we can keep that and fight [for] that gives us a chance to be really successful and maximize the talent of the team.”

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That transformation from scorer to all-around player may be most difficult for Brown, who was the team’s unquestioned second option to Tatum prior to this season. With Porzingis as a lob threat, 3-point shooter, and post presence, Brown has taken nearly three fewer shots per game this season and his scoring average has dipped 5 points to 21.6.

Some of that can be attributed to a slow start — 46 percent shooting compared with 49.1 last season — but it’s also the presence of Porzingis and others as options. The Celtics have become more versatile and less predictable on offense, which was their primary goal with the offseason moves. Brown’s next adjustment is to take advantage of defenses, using not only his scoring prowess but his playmaking abilities. The Celtics are asking more of Brown, even if it means scoring less.

Brown has averaged nearly four assists per game in November, and those eight assists against the Bucks made a statement about his ability to set up teammates.

“I feel like I’ve been doing that all season long, definitely a part of my game I’ve been growing,” Brown said. “It’s a new year, a new season, and I feel like I’m playing some of my best basketball in how I’m seeing the floor and I get into a flow and rhythm of things and I feel like I’ll be able to continue to do that. I think when I get more guys playing off me, trusting that I’m going to make the right read, we should go to that a lot more.”

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Besides a slight dip in assists, Tatum’s offensive numbers have been better than last season across the board. Like Brown, his scoring average has dipped because he’s attempting 1.3 fewer shots and 2.5 fewer free throws per game.

In the Celtics’ 102-100 win over the Grizzlies on Nov. 19, Tatum attempted just one 3-pointer, his fewest in a non-injury game since Jan. 23, 2019 (his second season), when he did not attempt a three. Tatum attempted just 13 shots Nov. 19 but pulled down a team-high nine rebounds and added five assists. It wasn’t his night to be the primary scorer. Porzingis led the Celtics with 26 points.

“Just the flow of the game,” Tatum said of his lack of 3-point attempts. “Sometimes they come in bunches and sometimes you get your first three in the fourth quarter. You play a lot of games and it’s not always going to be [as many shots] as you like. You draw extra defender, seeing a crowd and try to get other guys going. It’s more just finding guys and trying to make the right play.”

Mazzulla said learning to play the right way all the time is going to be a season-long process. It’s not that the Celtics are a selfish team, but scorers feel the best way to contribute is scoring.

President of basketball operations Brad Stevens moved Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, and Robert Williams for Holiday and Porzingis so the Celtics would be less predictable and more dangerous on offense. Mazzulla understands there are going to be games in which Tatum, Brown, and others will take questionable shots to get themselves going. It’s second nature.

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But those cornerstones realize the key to long-term team success is sacrifice, passing on a good shot for a better shot, chasing down a key rebound, or focusing as much on defense as 3-point shooting. The Celtics are off to the best start in the NBA, so the philosophy is working and Mazzulla is convinced it will improve.

It seems that the Celtics' top scorers are internalizing the importance of other aspects of the game.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff
COMING UP BIG

Grizzlies’ Aldama

growing into role

The Celtics saw firsthand the improvement of Memphis swingman Santi Aldama, who scored a career-high 28 points in the Grizzlies’ 102-100 loss to Boston on Nov. 19. Aldama has been one of the few bright spots on an injury-riddled club that has one of the league’s worst records.

Aldama has stepped into a more prominent role with the absence of Marcus Smart, Ja Morant, Steven Adams, and Brandon Clarke, and he nearly beat the Celtics with a last-second 3-pointer that caromed off the rim. Aldama is a prospect the Grizzlies have been refining since acquiring the 2021 first-round pick from the Jazz shortly after that draft. Aldama, a staple on the Spanish national team, appears ready to make a steady contribution.

The 7-foot Aldama, who played just 27 college games at Loyola (Maryland) before entering the draft, has become a matchup issue because of his ability to handle the ball and stretch the floor.

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“The more positions you can play and the more situations you are in is great,” he said. “I’m lucky to have teammates and a coaching staff that trusts me. Coach [Taylor Jenkins] told me before the game to stay aggressive knowing that I was going to guard smaller guys. Normally I use my length, but I have to use my feet guarding smaller guys, and if I want to play the three, I think that’s key. The more situations you’re in, the more you’re going to learn and the better overall player you’re going to be. I think I’m in a good position with my teammates where they trust me. I missed two threes early on and right after, [Desmond Bane] found me wide open and trusted me for a shot. ”

The challenge for players such as Aldama is consistency. After taking a career-high 27 shots against the Celtics, he attempted five three nights later against the Rockets and scored 8 points. He is learning to pick his spots, trust his talents, and become more comfortable with his increased role and small forward position.

“It’s very different, obviously, playing the three, four, and five,” he said. “Obviously with the three, you just have smarter and faster guys. It was obviously a challenge. Having [Bismack Biyombo] out there gives us a lot of size but also having me and [Jaren Jackson Jr.] that can shoot, opens the floor and us being so tall, is just really hard to guard. I liked joining the starting group. We just have to get used to having these three, almost 7-footers, on the floor. In the long run, especially if we’re able to switch one through five, I think it’s going be good for us.”

Smart was injured and couldn’t face his former team. But he offered his teammates a detailed scouting report, including how to defend Jayson Tatum, who attempted one 3-point shot and finished with 20 points, 8 fewer than his season average.

“In the pregame talk, [Smart] talked for like 10 minutes straight,” Aldama said. “He knows these guys. Obviously, he’s a guy that’s done a lot of film, but he’s played there for nine, 10 years, and he knows them better than anybody. Probably better than themselves. He gave us a lot of insight, especially guarding [Tatum], who’s a great player and who bangs down smaller defenders into the post and then has all these tricks. [He helped us understand] how to guard him without fouling.”

Jenkins is looking for any bright spots in a difficult season.

“[Aldama] was great,” Jenkins said. “I think he played the three, four, and five for us tonight with foul trouble and changing lineups in the middle of the game. He was awesome, career night. Just been talking to him about playing with a lot of aggression. We talked about that coming out of the summer. He’s got so much versatility, just really proud of the offensive effort. We needed that. It didn’t matter what his position was.

“I think with our second unit, he had to play some five, and he can be a playmaker for us. Really impressed. The aggressiveness, especially from the 3-point line, is something he’s been working a lot on since the start of the season. Closeouts, driving and kicking . . . really impressive.”

Santi Aldama, who played just 27 college games at Loyola (Maryland) before entering the draft, has become a matchup issue because of his ability to handle the ball and stretch the floor.Brandon Dill/Associated Press
ETC.

Strategy in play for

in-season tourney

The qualifying round for the NBA’s first in-season tournament will conclude Tuesday, and the Pacers and Lakers have already qualified for the quarterfinals. As the tournament has progressed and stakes have been defined, players have become more passionate.

The prize for many players is potentially five nights in Las Vegas for the semifinals and finals. That time could serve as a respite and a chance to play meaningful games on a larger stage, especially for teams such as the Pacers, who get little national attention because of their market size.

One of the tiebreakers for the tournament is point differential and some coaches are taking that seriously. The Bucks pounded the Hornets, 130-99, this past week and coach Adrian Griffin left his starters in to essentially run up the score.

This past week, Toronto trailed Boston by 3 but refused to foul in the final seconds and give the Celtics a chance to add to the margin.

Some interesting games on Tuesday that could help decide quarterfinal spots are Miami-Milwaukee, Chicago-Boston, Houston-Dallas, and Golden State-Sacramento.

While the in-season tournament is gaining traction, many players are unsure of the significance of winning a championship. The NBA’s goal is to be more of a national presence before Christmas.

The Dec. 7 semifinals will go head-to-head against the Patriots-Steelers Thursday night NFL matchup, which seemed to be a more daunting conflict before the season. The Dec. 9 championship will compete with the Heisman Trophy presentation, but the college football regular season and conference championships will be completed. One more incentive for teams is the $500,000 prize money for every member of the winning team. That may not seem like a lot for the likes of Stephen Curry or LeBron James but could be meaningful to players on two-way contracts, minimum-salary deals, or nonguaranteed contracts.

Many players on lucrative contracts would love to help out their teammates with a $500,000 boost, or even the $200,000 prize money for members of the runner-up team.

As for the Celtics, they won their first two games, but clinching Group C will be no cinch. Friday’s game against the Magic was critical. The Magic entered 2-1 and now have the head-to-head advantage with their 113-96 win. The Nets are 2-1 with a loss to the Celtics, while the Bulls and Raptors are out of the running after losing their first two games.

If the Nets, Magic, and Celtics each finish 3-1, the tiebreakers are (in order) head-to-head records, point differential, points scored in tournament play, 2022-23 record, and random drawing. Brooklyn ends pool play Tuesday against Toronto, while Chicago and Toronto played Friday (the Raptors winning, 121-108).

The biggest disappointment in the tournament has been the 76ers, who lost at home to the Pacers and Cavaliers (without Donovan Mitchell). Teams such as the Wizards, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Pistons — all having poor seasons — lost their first three games and were eliminated.

Layups

The testy relationship between Warriors guard Chris Paul and referee Scott Foster took another turn this past week when Foster ejected Paul for arguing a foul in the second quarter of Golden State’s loss to the Suns. What looked like a normal exchange between player and official turned contentious with Paul yelling expletives at Foster and Foster also assessing a technical foul to the Warriors bench. Paul then revealed their relationship was so poor it required a meeting with league officials, Paul, his father, son, and Foster. Paul wouldn’t reveal the details or nature of the meeting, but Paul’s teams have lost the last 13 playoff games Foster has officiated. So Paul believes the beef is personal. The NBA has not revealed whether it will investigate this latest issue, but it has to be concerning that an official and player have such a contentious relationship . . . While the story line from the first Celtics-Bucks matchup was Boston’s wire-to-wire run, Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo got into a spat with Griffin early in the third quarter when Griffin attempted to take Antetokounmpo out in favor of Bobby Portis. Antetokounmpo waved several times to Griffin that he didn’t want to be replaced and then refused to go to the bench, instead standing at the scorer’s table and exchanging words with his coach. Antetokounmpo regularly exits games midway through the third quarter, but with the Bucks trailing by double digits he wanted to stay in the game. He appeared to challenge Griffin’s authority by staying at the scorer’s table instead of going to the bench, and he then checked back into the game at the next stoppage. Antetokounmpo has had his minutes limited to keep him fresh for playoff runs. He’s averaging about 33 minutes per game and logged 37 in the loss to the Celtics. Griffin and Antetokounmpo downplayed the exchange, but it was very public, considering it occurred during the game and was caught by ESPN cameras. The dynamic between Antetokounmpo and Griffin is something to watch because Griffin has had a rocky beginning as Bucks coach, losing top assistant Terry Stotts before the regular season began because of an issue with Griffin.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.