Gotta give credit to Blake Griffins. This was as tough as back-to-backs come, heading into Toronto without your starting center and sixth man.
Boston needed someone to step up. It gets that every night across the perimeter with its loaded guard and wing groups. But the center position is supposed to be the Celtics’ weak point.
Whether it’s Luke Kornet or Griffin stepping up in Al Horford‘s absence, that hasn’t felt like the case lately. So after the Celtics beat the raptors 116-110 as Griffin and Kornet shot a combined 10-for-13 from the field, it’s been clear that responding to the challenge has become second nature to this team.
“Gotta give a lot of credit to Blake, man. Blake played his ass off tonight,” Jayson Tatum NBC Sports told Boston’s Abby Chin after the game. “Luke came in and played tremendously for us. Super happy for those guys. Without them, we wouldn’t have won.”
Tatum said the team has been good at not panicking and responding when it faces a challenge, which can be external from the opponent or internal from the steady stream of absences it has had. That’s where the center depth comes into play, which has worked despite how it looked on paper coming into the year.
Rob Williams’ absence has been felt in play style, but not in the team’s results. It is the first to 20 wins in the league and nobody else is even close. Milwaukee can’t even get there until Sunday. Boston is a step ahead of everybody, and it’s nights like this when it walks into a dangerous place with a banged-up squad that keeps it at the front of the pack.
It’s not like Griffin is still a game changer. But he does some things well, and the Celtics have been adept at accommodating some drastically varying center personnel throughout the year. Horford, Kornet and Griffin operate in completely different roles, yet the team’s playmakers don’t seem to have any issue keeping the offense flowing with any big.
This was Griffin’s night, who was in a rhythm on the roll, and had one huge and-1 dunk attacking a closeout that brought the game to life.
“I know I didn’t, (but) I’m sure everybody here and in the world didn’t know Blake still had it in the tank,” Marcus Smart told reporters in Toronto. “To be able to see him come out and give the energy he’s been giving us, that’s all you can ask for. It’s no wonder why everyone loves Blake. It’s no wonder why he’s on this team and he’s still here in this league. He understands what it takes to be a vet.”
The dunk was a shock, but it wasn’t the first of these kinds of plays he’s made in recent weeks since he started getting spot starts. Griffin wants to make sure it’s no longer a surprise.
“I figure if I dunk once a game, people will stop acting like it’s a miracle,” Griffin said.
When Griffin is being an impact player from the back of the depth chart, they have every option at their disposal.
Jaylen Brown has suddenly stopped turning it over. He was hyper-aggressive Friday in the overtime loss to Miami, dropping 37 points and five dimes, but also with five turnovers. Brown’s assist-to-turnover ratio tends to be stuck at one.
But he hasn’t turned it over since. Thirteen minutes of wild crunchtime, then a back-to-back against Brooklyn and Toronto, still no turnovers for Brown.
Monday night’s win turned on his head in the third quarter, when the Celtics fumbled the ball away just once in a 35-18 period. That was nearly triple the 13 points they scored coming out of the locker room in Brooklyn the night before. There was one point in the middle of the quarter when Brown was trapped by Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby and got his pass to Smart deflected. But he got lucky as the ball just barely reached Smart, he cut to the hoop and Smart passed it through a triple-team that had forgotten about Brown in all the chaos.
That’s the hallmark of this Celtics offense. They play hard and fast, trying to swing the ball fast enough that the defense eventually can’t keep up. That’s when too many defenders get locked onto one guy, and that’s exactly when Brown has made the right dive to the hoop.
Brown has now gone 92.5 minutes without a turnover while racking up eight assists Monday. That’s an entire Hollywood blockbuster, which is exactly what his game is looking like right now.
The off-ball Jayson Tatum solution
Tatum’s screening has improved this year in subtle ways that make him a valuable decoy off the ball. Boston has built more pindown screens for shooters into his offense over the past few seasons, trying to make the defense confused on how to switch it while Tatum’s teammate gets an open 3.
Late in the first quarter, Boston ran a quick action on the break when Sam Hauser had the ball on the left wing with Kornet in the middle to get the ball and read the floor. Tatum was coming down the middle of the floor with Grant Williams out on the right wing with some room. Tatum wanted to come up to the ball to get the handoff from Kornet, but his defender fronted that action and forced Tatum to cut toward the hoop.
But instead of curling through the paint and out to the corner, Tatum went toward Siakam, who was loosely covering Williams. Tatum’s defender was confused by his position on Siakam’s inside hip and retreated all the way behind Siakam while Siakam called for the switch. So that meant nobody was going toward Williams and they were both standing under Tatum’s screen.
Tatum has been unstoppable attacking the paint and making better reads as a passer than ever. But it’s these little things he does to create opportunities for his teammates that have made him an MVP-level player this year.
He was getting frustrated in the first half when he was attacking hard and not getting calls, but came out on fire in the third quarter and found his rhythm driving baseline around Toronto’s small rim protection.
Tatum is learning how to solve problems rather than just trying to be the solution. He’s recognizing that he’s the queen on the chess board, rather than the entire board itself. It’s how they keep proving resilient, night in, night out.
“When we put our minds to it, we can beat anybody. It’s just a choice that we gotta make,” Tatum said. “We can make excuses. We had two guys out, or four guys out actually. Second night of a back-to-back, we could’ve just chalked this one up. But we wanted to figure it out.”
(Photo: Vaughn Ridley / NBAE via Getty Images)